00:03 [Natalie Kuldell – NK] All right, hi Brooke
00:06 [Brooke Huisman – BH] Hi Natalie!
00:07 [NK] Hi! Thank you so much for joining this morning for this office hours and Ask Me Anything session. It’s really nice to have you.
00:16 [BH] Thank you for having me.
00:20 [NK] Yeah so I’d like to start just by talking to somebody who’s a practicing bioengineer and hearing a little bit about what they’re doing now and how they got interested in the work. You and I are connected through sort of MIT and a common department, but could you say where you are now and what you’re doing right now?
00:42 [BH] Totally, yep, and thanks for having me on thanks for the BioBuilder program. I’m currently a PhD student at MIT – I should say I’m Brook Huisman. I just started my fourth year at MIT BE.
00:55 [NK] That’s great, yes BE, biological engineering, thank you and I’m sorry: I keep forgetting I know you so I didn’t think I’d have to introduce you! I’m not a polished interviewer.
01:09 [BH] I love the Zoom feature; everyone has their name.
01:15 [NK] That is true, yep. So you are a fourth year student, right. So it’s the fourth year of a how many year program? Or should that not be a question?
01:23 [BH] No, no it’s a good question. For the BE – the biological engineering – program at MIT, we average about five and a half years to finish the whole program. So I’ll probably be here another – I’d say year, or maybe two years.
01:41 [NK] Given everything that’s happening. Yes exactly that’s that sounds right because I’m not sure everybody who might listen to our conversation is aware of what a PhD program involves, right. So you started a few years ago, and what did your first couple of years look like, and what do your years now look like?
02:01 [BH] Yeah good question. So upon starting a program, you have some coursework to sort of help launch you into your PhD, so I took about two classes every semester for the first three semesters. In my fourth semester, I was a teaching assistant. And then during that first semester we’re really looking at different labs and looking at different professors who could potentially be our Thesis Advisors. So I did four different rotations and met with students and did some small projects and then by December of my first year, I had joined a lab. And then everything from there is really just focused on pushing the frontiers of science forward, which I think is fascinating. It’s so exciting.
02:48 [NK] Yeah it’s hard, but it’s really wonderful and exciting. So tell me which lab you landed in and maybe how you decided and what your project is?
02:59 [BH] Yeah totally! I’m in the lab of Michael Birnbaum. So he’s a younger professor at MIT. He’s been at MIT for about six years or so. And there were a couple of features that attracted me to joining his lab. One was the type of science and the type of questions that they were asking. They really weren’t afraid to go after really big questions like really pursue the big challenges, and they focus on immunology and immune engineering and they specifically focus on a type of immune cell called T cells. The big picture way that I like to think about this type of immunology is how do immune cells know if something is wrong inside of a cell? So you have a cell. It, you know, has its cell membrane: Is it cancer? Is it healthy? Is it virally infected? How does the immune system discern if it’s healthy or not? And there’s this class of proteins – the name is called major histocompatibility complexes or MHCs – and they’re actually in – the closest analogy I think is like a hot dog bun. So they are like this hot dog bong on the surface of cells, and then different pieces of proteins, that are broken down into peptide fragments from inside of that cell, is actually displayed on the surface of the cell – sort of the hot dog in the hot dog bun analogy.
04:33 [NK] Yeah.
04:04 [BH] So it’s like pieces from inside the cell that are on the outside of the cell. And then then T cells – this type of immune cell – can come around and check and say “I recognize that. I don’t recognize that.” That’s the area that we’re in.
04:48 [NK] It could not be more relevant or more like what is on everybody’s mind right now! So, clearly, we are all wishing you great success in your discoveries in your work. So that’s pretty great. So then what does a sort of typical day – well I know now is not a typical day – but what would sort of your work as a graduate student look like on a day-to-day basis?
05:13 [BH] Yeah totally. I have my days kind of shaped by the type of projects that I have. So I do a mix of computational work and experimental work. So these days, I’m in the afternoon shift in the lab – we split into two shifts to keep density down – but I’ll typically work on some data analysis, model design, that kind of thing, in the mornings when I’m just working from home. And then in the afternoons, I head into the lab and do bench science – do experimental work. One of the techniques that we use a lot is a technology called yeast surface display. So we actually engineer these yeast to display immune proteins on their surface, and so we can profile them and study these proteins in a really high throughput manner.
06:10 [NK] I am a yeast geneticist; I love yeast as a system!
06:13 [BH] Awesome, awesome!
06:14 [NK] I think they are so powerful, and the amazing surface display is just an incredible way to study the presentation of things onto the surfaces. It’s been used in some BioBuilder projects, too, like for presenting antigens to allergy responses and things like that. So yeah, what a great system to be working in; it’s very powerful genetically and tractable in the lab and modelable. So wow, what an awesome set of experiments. Now I want to back up just a little bit because I’m sure people would be interested in your path to such an important project and such interesting work. So do you want to maybe back up to where did you grow up? And where did you go to school? And when did you know you were interested in science? And stuff like that?
07:08 [BH] Sure, for sure. I am originally from Michigan and I went to University of Michigan for my undergrad, and I started to study biomedical engineering there. Growing up, I would say I had broad interests; I was interested in a lot of things But I think my goal for a really long time that I thought was the path I was going down was doing clinical medicine – so going to medical school and becoming a doctor. What was the pivot point for me was during undergrad during my first semester: I joined a research lab at Michigan and then I was with that lab for four years. So working on a project in the research lab really was what changed my mind and directed me more towards a research path. I love the idea that you can discover something or develop something in research that can really push our understanding as humans – I guess just push our boundaries forward and, in developing or discovering something, that’s something that could have you know watershed effects – affect clinical medicine in a lot of ways as well. That’s what shifted me to get a PhD.
08:29 [NK] It is incredible to feel like there’s this moment where you’re like “I’m the only person on the planet that knows this!” Right, you’re like “I’m looking at this data, and yeah I know this and nobody else knows this on the planet does.” I think it’s so exciting. It’s really thrilling. It’s amazing how, sort of, thrilling science can be. I mean, it is also not thrilling every day – I don’t want to oversell it; there’s a lot of stuff that doesn’t work; there’s a lot of slog to science. But I think that that lift of the moment – the discovery, the chance – to uncover something that hasn’t been uncovered before is just – it is a great way to spend time, you know. Even if it’s not going well, to know that you’re on that path. So that’s really cool. So did you say what you studied in college? You were a…
09:25 [BH] Biomedical engineer.
09:26 [NK] Biomedical engineering, yeah. And that was an engineering degree or a science degree there?
09:30 [BH] It was engineering.
09:31 [NK] It was in the school of engineering, yeah.
09:33 [BH] It was more – I would say more macroscopic focused. So more devices, orthotics, these kinds of things, prosthetics.
09:42 [NK] Yep, yep, yep. So yeah, I mean, I think, like you, I think many people go to college with, you know, a world view that includes people they know who are doctors, and people they know who are teachers, and people they know who have certain jobs. And then biomedical engineers: not a lot of people know biomedical engineers necessarily and so it doesn’t always sort of come to the top of people’s plans. But yeah, when you find the right track, that’s really great. Fantastic, you are doing great things. But part of why I know you is because you have also been a leader within BioBuilder and done some teaching with BioBuilder in our organization. Do you want to say anything about why you teach or what you like about teaching or things that you want to share about that?
10:36 [BH] Yeah totally. I’m really drawn to the academic sphere because of this melding of discovery and research but also of teaching and discovery through just learning from people on the field. So I really enjoy working with students and mentoring students in programs like BioBuilder, in the classroom – you know, it’s more in person in-the-classroom, – and then also mentoring in the research lab. I think it’s both really rewarding to see someone’s trajectory but also to know that you’re kind of helping influence another generation of scientists.
11:15 [NK] Yeah.
11:16 [BH] As an anecdote, one of – during my second year of – sorry my first year second semester of my PhD – so I’m really just getting my bearings in the lab – there was a really interesting undergraduate who my professor paired me with. And so she joined me in working in the lab and I learned a lot alongside her while mentoring her, and now she’s off. She’s just started her PhD at Harvard in their Systems Biology program. So it’s fantastic to see the full circle.
11:47 [NK] It is just wonderful; I totally agree. We take so much – it just lifts your heart to think about all the folks that you know are going on to do great things, in addition, that you’ve had the chance to intersect with. And yeah, it’s such a joy; it is absolutely a joy, yeah. And I think it raises an interesting point, which I’m not sure is obvious from the outside, but that is that we all help each other. Like nobody gets through this just completely independently as you know an island unto themselves without really working in partnership really hand-in-hand with a lot of people – and they’re not always more senior to you, right. Like that student was an undergraduate but you were both in this lab, and you were working together. I know, a lot of labs I’ve been in, the first person I go to with a question is the technician – the one who’s been there for like 20 years. They know exactly where things are, or how to order something, or which reagent works better, or anything like that. They are the source of information: the research technician in the lab. So yep that sounds great. So is there anything that you kind of wish you knew before that you know now? Or something that you might take away as an important point that got you to where you are?
13:13 [BH] Yeah, I have a more deep answer, I guess but one thing that I didn’t know necessarily at the beginning of grad school – or at the beginning of undergrad – and I think is a well-kept secret, but I don’t think it should be, is that if you’re considering a PhD, know that you’re actually funded for it. So you’re not going into debt pursuing a PhD. So that makes it really possible, you know, feasible for a lot of people to pursue.
13:43 [NK] Yes, so important. I don’t know why we keep it a secret!
13:48 [BH] I know. Yeah, yeah.
13:50 [NK] Anybody who’s thinking of studying science for a PhD: know that your education is paid for by our government! We have training grants that are intended to bring our next generation of scientists and engineers online. It’s an important thing.
14:02 [BH] Yeah, so true. And then I guess the second part of my answer would be: know that failure is expected if you’re failing in a rigorous and robust way – so not because you accidentally contaminated something (which happens), but if you’re doing rigorous science and not getting an answer or things are failing, know that that’s okay and expected. My professors – actually my grad school advisor – used to say “if you’re not failing at least 50% of the time, you’re pursuing a question that’s too easy!” So I kind of took that to heart, that it’s a good thing; it’s an expected thing. Don’t be discouraged when things don’t work.
14:53 [NK] Yeah, what a great lesson; it’s so so very true. And I think that, again, we’re talking about sort of why are we keeping these things as well-kept secret, right, but the notion that it is expected to fail and to be learning from your failed experiments or your unproductive days and in order to make the the next day better and to get closer to to the answer and to the discovery that you’re working on, it’s absolutely true. It’s part of the beauty of science; you can look at the data and you’re like “oh well that didn’t work and now I wish I had known x, y, or z. So now I have to set up another experiment to know x, y, or z and then maybe I’ll get back to this important one.” So yeah, it’s such an important lesson and it’s hard when, come graduate school, there are days and days and days where things just aren’t working out,
15:51 [BH] So true.
15:52 [NK] but it’s the part of it that I think is necessary, and I think it takes a lot of courage. So yeah, so yay you on your graduate career! You’re going to make a wonderful, wonderful PhD, discovering great stuff. I think it’s a wonderful project you’re on, and a very obviously relevant and important one. I’m glad you’re combining the computational tools and the bench tools, and I’m also just very glad you’re a part of the BioBuilder community for us, so thank you. Thanks for all of it.
16:24 [BH] Thanks so much, thank you.
16:26 [NK] I am keeping an eye on the participants list and I do not see people in for additional questions of you, so I will give you back your time this morning to finish your work, and yeah and thank you again for getting a chance to chat with with us, and we’ll post this conversation so people can watch it in the time that that suits them.
16:50 [BH] Sounds good. Thank you so much, Dr. Kuldell.