Q. When did you first become interested in science?
Sally: I was lucky to grow up with parents who are both in science. They are both physicians and I think my dad had a secret regret that he never became a microbiologist or zoologist. And my mom’s secret regret is that she never became an engineer. Not that they really have regrets, they love their jobs, but they always had interests in these fields. And so I grew up thinking about pond scum and looking at it under the microscope. And making things, doing crafts. [I liked] working hard and seeing the end product in your hand and using it.
Anastasia: I’m always jealous of the people that have an ah-hah moment [about their interest in science]. I’m fortunate enough to have two parents who are both scientists. Through school science fairs – I loved those—my dad and I would have a great time bonding. And then for Christmas and my birthday I would get the normal, kid presents and one present related to science and engineering. One time I got to build my own little radio! I remember these ones so much more vividly than I remember other presents. Another time I got my own mini microscope.
Q. What is the focus of your current research?
Sally: My project is working to develop new surgical glues. For example, if you’ve ever cut yourself badly and had to go to the ER, they might use superglue on your skin. But one application for which surgical glue could still be improved is for fetal surgery. This is an operation on a baby while still inside of the mother’s womb. There are a lot of rare but very serious conditions that babies can be born with. [To surgically correct these prior to birth] you have to make a little hole in the amniotic sac. The problem is that the amniotic sac is very thin, like a balloon, and so you can’t really sew it back up after surgery. And if you don’t do anything, it is likely that the little balloon is going to rupture, which can lead to pre-term birth. The idea is that once you do the surgery, you apply the glue that I’m working to develop to the amniotic sac to help it stay in place until it’s time for the baby to be born.
Anastasia: I am a joint student between two very different groups. One group does a lot of organic and polymer chemistry and the other focuses on inorganic and cluster chemistry. In the inorganic group, the idea is to develop the periodic table into a third dimension where you combine metals together to form discrete clusters—basically what we call super atoms. It’s very similar to the idea of quantum dots—depending on size, it tunes the color of the quantum dot. I think materials chemistry is really interesting. You can combine elements of organic with inorganic chemistry and make these hybrid materials. The major applications are in solar cell devices and, mostly on the inorganic side, there is a lot to be discovered. If we make these materials, what type of properties could we get out of them?
Q. What recent breakthrough or discovery in science are you really excited about?
Sally: Oh my gosh. So many. Since all of our experiences are biased by our surroundings, at Berkeley I live with three other PhD students, one in bioengineering and two in molecular biology, so I get to hear about all the cool innovations happening in that field. So right now the thing that is blowing up in molecular biology is Crispr, which is a new way to edit DNA in your cells. There are all these think pieces about the promise of Crispr and danger of Crispr…you know Crispr, Crispr, Crispr. I feel like everyone has their own thoughts on what is going to be big in Crispr, and I think there is huge promise for anyone who can figure out to deliver Crispr—using materials or biomaterials to make Crispr better.
Anastasia: Quantum dots—I’m pretty jazzed about them! They’re taking over LEDs and they’re also just a better material. So keep your eyes tuned, twenty years from now they’ll be the big thing! They’re so cool. They are finite, discrete particles and you can also modify their surface chemistry. They are potential candidates for imaging because you can tune fluorescent probes, for example. Quantum dots are like nanoparticles, but on an even smaller size scale. The problem is – and this is kind of a major problem – is that a lot of them are lead-based.
Q. What is your favorite class you’ve ever taken?
Sally: Necessary, engineering fundamentals course: my systems biology class in undergrad. I went in thinking it was going to be useful (kind of) and interesting (kind of), but it was definitely interesting and definitely useful, and also really well taught. My other favorite was anatomy for bioengineers, which was taught in the same room that Stanford medical students would use for their cadaver labs. So you could look at the cadavers that they were dissecting over the course of the quarter and they had several prepared prosections, specifically to show one aspect of anatomy. We also got to use really cool modern technologies to learn about anatomy, such as the virtual dissection table, which was like a hospital bed-sized iPad.
Anastasia: I took Advanced Organic Reactions when I was at BU, one of the grad courses offered. Let me just say, I did terrible in the class. It was so hard! But my boss in my undergrad lab was teaching the course that semester. There were definitely a couple of times after exams that he would call me into his office and I would just ball. I would be so upset about how I did on the exam. But I think it was actually my favorite class because it really pushed me. It challenged me in learning and challenged me to just keep going and not just memorizing. You really had to sit there and read a lot of papers and understand the fundamentals of what was going on behind every mechanism. It really opened my eyes.
Q. It’s a day in lab, what are you drinking? (Ahem, not at the lab bench…obviously…)
Sally: Water – hydration is key!
Anastasia: I try to limit myself on coffee—I’d say I have one cup of coffee during the day. I try to keep my water bottle around and I’m really into fizzy, sparkly waters. I went through a phase where I was really into Synergy, but that was getting expensive, so I needed to stop!