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Meet some of the PLOS ECRs and Forbes 30 Under 30 leading the research community

This post is part two of a two-part blog series. Visit The Official PLOS Blog for part one.

The New Year kicked off with Forbes Magazine’s annual 30 Under 30 issue, which recognizes the accomplishments of 600 young leaders who are making substantial strides in their respective fields. The changemakers featured in the Science and Healthcare lists have lead innovations in everything from biotechnology to drug distribution, but one thing many have in common is having published in PLOS journals at some stage in their early careers.

We’ve contacted some of the PLOS authors recognized in this year’s 30 Under 30 and asked them to share their stories and insights with the PLOS ECR Community.

Carrie Cowardin

Postdoctoral Research Scientist; Washington University, St. Louis

ORCID ID: 0000-0002-8225-8261

Carrie Cowardin
Carrie Cowardin, PLOS author and Forbes 30 under 30. Photo provided by Carrie Cowardin.

Carrie Cowardin is currently a postdoc at Washington University where she studies the impact of developing microbiota on bone growth and immune function in cases of undernutrition. Cowardin is recognized by Forbes for her discovery that the pathogen Clostridium difficile (C. difficile) produces toxins that kill off protective bacteria in the gut.

In August 2016, PLOS Neglected Tropical Diseases published an article Cowardin contributed to at the beginning of graduate school, as a rotational student in Richard Guerrant’s lab at the University of Virginia.

“My goals have evolved considerably since that time, when I was mostly concerned with finding a good fit for a thesis lab and passing my qualifying exam!” said Cowardin. “Six years later, I have graduated with my PhD and am working on developing new skills and techniques to eventually become an independent investigator.”

While attending the University of Virginia, Cowardin joined the lab of Bill Petri, who she said gave his students a lot of freedom in determining the direction of their research. When Cowardin first joined Petri’s lab, C. difficile wasn’t a primary research focus for the group. “Bill took a huge risk by letting us study a brand new research area and we felt a lot of ownership in our work and we’re enormously invested in our projects because of that fact.”

Cowardin said her greatest challenge was finding a project she was excited about, and advises ECRs encountering similar barriers to “… keep exploring until you find something you really care about, even if it takes a while. And once you have found it, be confident in yourself and stick with it, because science can be really difficult. Do your best to find something positive or at least informative in every set back, and be nimble and open minded about new approaches.”

Melissa Gymrek

Assistant Professor; University of California, San Diego

ORCID ID: 0000-0002-6086-3903

Melissa Gymrek strives to initiate interdisciplinary research between the School of Medicine and the School of Engineering in her role as an assistant professor at UC San Diego. Forbes recognized Gymrek for her contributions to the field of human genetics, specifically for an algorithm she has patented that allows scientists to analyze complex regions of the genome.

“Scientifically, I view one of my greatest accomplishments so far as helping convey to the genomics field that the “dark matter” of the genome is worth looking at.”

For her PhD project at MIT, Gymrek looked at short tandem repeats (STRs), a genetic variation that many other geneticists had considered “junk DNA” that wouldn’t lead to any breakthroughs. Her investigation revealed that uncharacterized STRs have valuable implications for science and health, and today her research investigates how STRs can impact human disease.

While attending graduate school at MIT, Gymrek collaborated with other trainees in Yaniv Erlich’s lab to research the genetic underpinnings of hemifacial microsomia, a highly variable and often sporadic facial anomaly. The results of the study, which implicates OTX2 as being the likely genetic culprit for this condition, were published in PLOS ONE.

“This study was one of my first experiences applying our skillsets to help out a family with a genetic condition,” Gymrek said. “As I transition to my new role, my goals are shifting heavily toward medical genetics applications in order to understand the role of complex repetitive regions of the genome in common diseases.”

A key challenge Gymrek, and many other ECRs faced is the “two-body problem,” where two scientists are partnered and are seeking a role at the same institutions, or institutions in nearby areas. Though she characterizes the process of job seeking as a unit as both physically and emotionally demanding, it worked out in the end.

“After enduring a seemingly endless process of applying and interviewing at many institutions spanning across the country, juggling taking care of our baby son and often dragging him along with us, and lots of hard discussions, we both ended up with offers from several of our top choice schools,” she said.
Gymrek’s advice to ECRs is to put yourself out there, and make yourself known.

“Go to conferences, present your work, take the opportunity to go to lunch with the seminar speakers, get on twitter, start a blog. It is hard to accomplish big goals alone. Having a strong network of peers and mentors ends up being extremely powerful. If people already know you, they are much more willing to help.”

Follow Melissa on Twitter @mgymrek and read her personal blog.

Jiang He

Postdoctoral Associate; Institute for Medical Engineering and Science, MIT

JiangHe
Photo provided by Jiang He.

Jiang He was recognized by Forbes for using a new single-virus tracking, super-resolution imaging (STORM) technology to study the interactions between virus and the host cell while completing his postdoctoral research at Harvard University.

“I was a third-year graduate student in Xiaowei Zhuang’s group at Harvard University when I published my paper in PLOS Pathogens,” said He. “Back then, I was working on using single-molecule imaging tools, such as super-resolution imaging, to study virus-host cell interaction, and the developmental mechanism of a novel actin-based periodic membrane cytoskeleton in neurons.”

He said that one of the greatest challenges he encountered in graduate school was identifying the next big question in his research field, a debacle many ECRs likely have faced at some point in their careers.

“I remember in the middle of graduate schooling, when I was transitioning from studying virus-host interaction to neuronal cytoskeleton, I was overwhelmed by the amount of literature in the field of neuroscience and didn’t know how to even begin,” said He.

But being inquisitive and connecting with scientists working in fields similar to him, He said he was able to advance his knowledge of the field. “Eventually that effort really paid off.”

He is currently a post-doctoral associate in Sangeeta Bhatia’s lab at MIT, where he is studying the intersections between cell biology, single-molecular imaging, and human parasitic diseases. Unlike other ECRs, He grew up in a poor, rural community in China where educational and medical resources were limited. Today, he is passionate about helping to expand the reach of science and medicine through improved drug delivery.

Learn more about Jiang’s professional experience on LinkedIn.

Srilakshmi Raj

Postdoctoral fellow; Cornell University
ORCID ID: 0000-0002-4506-7028

Photo provided by Sri Raj.
Photo provided by Sri Raj.

Srilakshmi Raj is a human population geneticist at Cornell University, where she is researching how different evolutionary adaptations may offer protection against chronic disease among certain populations.

Raj and her colleagues used a new methodology to study the genomes of indigenous Siberian populations for evidence of any genetic, evolutionary adaptations to the sub-Arctic temperatures of the region. The study was then published in PLOS ONE in May 2014.

“My greatest accomplishment and challenge has been field research,” said Raj. “As researchers, we are usually in a position where can control the experimental process. The greatest challenge of working with actual human beings in the field introduces many different unknowns.”

Her best advice for fellow ECRs is simple: read often and read widely. “That knowledge will give you the ability to notice good scientific questions and inspiration on how to go about answering them. Following the masters (in any field) will provide structure to your growth.”

Follow Srilakshmi on Twitter @srimraj.

Gloria Tavera, 29

MD/PhD student; Case Western Reserve University

Universities Allied for Essential Medicines (UAEM) is a mission-driven organization that aims to close

Gloria Tavera poses for a photograph at a lab where she does her work, Sunday, Jan. 9, 2011, in Rockville, Md. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)
Gloria Tavera poses for a photograph at a lab where she does her work, Sunday, Jan. 9, 2011, in Rockville, Md. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)

the accessibility gap between the universities that develop medicines and the people who need them. Forbes recognized Gloria Tavera for her work as the founder and board president of UAEM, which includes a coalition of universities spanning 18 continents with more than 100 chapters. Tavera, who is currently a PhD student researching H. pylori and its role in the development of stomach cancer at Case Western Reserve University, advises ECRs to pursue purpose-driven work.

“If you can, choose to work on something that is deeply rooted in some improvement you want to see in the world, and connect that as closely as you can to helping people. Use this, draw inspiration from it.”

Tavera coauthored a 2010 editorial with PLOS Neglected Tropical Diseases co-Editor-in-Chief Peter Hotez that called upon the top research institutions in the United States to prioritize innovation and drug development for neglected diseases. The editorial was written while she was studying dengue hemorrhagic fever as a Fulbright scholar in Mexico, and was writing in her capacity as the founding member of UAEM. “I knew I wanted to apply to MD/PhD programs, to become a scientist, physician and social justice advocate,” said Tavera.

She advises all ECRs to “always connect people back to your science, or some main endeavor of your life, in as many ways as you can. That way, even when things get difficult, you still feel you are making a difference for someone, somewhere.”

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Have ideas for the future of #scicomm? Apply for the PLOS ECR Travel Awards

Early Career Researchers, defined as anyone enrolled in a graduate program or within five years post-graduation, who have published their research in a PLOS journal are invited to submit an application for a PLOS ECR Travel Award, a $500 grant awarded to ECRs to offset travel costs for conferences. The admission qualifications are described in detail here.

This cycle, PLOS wants to hear your ideas about the future of science communication.

“Considering new and modern ways of communicating science, describe the role the community can play in changing the way science is judged and assessed to accelerate science and discovery.”

Share your insights and submit your application here.

This blog post is the second component of a two-part series introducing some of the early career researchers and PLOS authors featured in the 2017 Forbes 30 Under 30 list. Read the first part of the series on The Official PLOS Blog.

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