I first ooh-ed and awww-ed at Biomeme’s hand-held real-time PCR machine at An Evening With Philly Biotech a few months ago. Maria Chacon-Heszele, a Life Scientist and employee number 5 at the start-up Biomeme, spoke about her experience in graduate school, her post-doc, and finding her awesome current job. When I started chatting with her after the panel was over, she pulled out of her purse the tiniest, slickest PCR machine I’d ever seen. I wanted to take it home with me, but I wasn’t sneaky enough. A few weeks ago, Megan and I took a field trip to Biomeme’s offices to learn more about this amazing little machine and about Maria’s personal and professional journey (and to give me another chance to steal a PCR machine-- I was woefully unsuccessful).
In case you’re not familiar with PCR, here’s a little background:
PCR, or polymerase chain reaction, is a reaction that creates billions of copies of a piece of DNA using another DNA molecule as a template. An enzyme called a polymerase is added to a tube containing the template DNA, nucleotides (the building blocks of DNA), and mini fragments of DNA called primers that allow you to target the region within your template piece of DNA you want to amplify. Once all of the components are added to the tube, the tube is placed in a PCR machine, also known as a thermal cycler. This machine is essentially a well-controlled heating block; it cycles through the temperatures required for the DNA amplification and at the end of a ~35 cycle reaction, you end up with billions of copies of the specific fragment of interest from your original DNA template. Real time PCR is very similar to standard PCR with one important difference: a fluorescent dye binds to the DNA that is being synthesized, which allows you to measure in real time how much of your newly synthesized DNA is present.
Even before we enter the building, I’m envious of Biomeme’s workspace. N3RD street sounds like the perfect place for a team of scientists and engineers to work creatively and own their nerd pride. Megan and I ring the bell and get buzzed up. We’re greeted by Maria and a friendly looking guy sorting through the recycling and debating about whether the next day is trash day or not. Megan and I already know Maria, but we introduce ourselves to the guy. It turns out he’s Max Perelman, the CEO of the company. We quickly learn that everyone in a start-up wears many hats --- and today the CEO is also the Trash Sorter.
1. Collect your DNA
3. Take out 20 uL of your DNA sample using provided (adorable) single-volume pipette and add it to the PCR mix. The PCR mix contains the primers, polymerase, nucleotides, and fluorophores in lyophilized form. My mind was blown when I learned you could lyophilize enzymes.
2. Extract your DNA. Rub the swab containing your DNA into the first sample prep tube. Then transfer the sample into 3 subsequent tubes using the provided syringe.
4. Put your sample tube into the top of the thermal cycler and run the program.
Although it’s a bit far off due to regulatory hurtles, the implications this device could have for community health are endless – including genotyping a viral strain and testing for STIs.
After we load our samples into the slick little devices, Maria offers us some beer that her co-workers brewed themselves. We sit down in front of the barn door and start asking Maria about how she got to where she is today.
She grew up in Venezuala and moved to eastern North Carolina when she was 15, right before her junior year of high school. We ask her if it the transition to American school was easy or difficult. She says, “Was it easy? The theory I had already covered. But we didn’t have the equipment and the hands on experiments [in Venezuala]. We had to be a lot more creative to do any sort of experiments. I was going to a really, really good private school in Venezuala and we didn’t have laboratory resources, [especially] compared to my public high school in eastern North Carolina. Chemistry lab [at my new school] was heaven for me. But getting used to actually doing scientific experiments was challenging.”
One of the projects she was given at her new high school really stuck with her – she was charged with the task of identifying and studying an unknown ion. Her ion was iron, and so she started researching hemoglobin. She was fascinating by the structure and how fetal and maternal hemoglobin are slightly different, which allows for gas exchange between the mother and fetus. I was like, “Biochemistry, hi! Where have you been?’ It really cemented in my head the idea that not only did I want to do science, but I wanted to get really deep into the science.” She knew then that in 10 years she would be getting her PhD in biochemistry.
She begins telling us about her PhD experience by saying, “I switched labs at the end of my 4th year in graduate school.” Megan and I both say, “Whaaattt!? Tell us about what happened!”
“I definitely struggled at the beginning of grad school. I loved science, and I was interested in studying the biochemistry of muscle atrophy. The project was really cool, but it was really, really tough. I spent about 3 years making reagents because I had to clone these viruses with minimal training because no one in my lab had been doing adeno viral cloning before. These were reagents that other labs already had before I began grad school, but they didn’t use NIH funding so they didn’t have to share the reagents. I got to learn a ton of molecular biology and biochemistry working in that lab. I think I was a little young, starting grad school at 20. I wasn’t a very assertive person – that’s something I’ve really had to work on. So I struggled a little bit with communicating my difficulties with my PI. By the end of my 4th year, I was finally able to get some of my reagents to work, but 2 major articles came out back-to-back in the same issue – 15 people per paper doing the same project I was trying to do on my own. I stuck in the lab another few months, but it was like – I have to start over. So it was either stay in that lab on that project, which wasn’t happening, quit science all together, or find a new lab. I chose to find a new lab. My program was incredibly supportive. My new PI took a big leap of faith, taking me in, but she did. I went from muscle atrophy and metabolism to the cell biology and development of the inner ear. After I joined that lab, I finished in 2 ½ years. I busted ass. I stayed in lab as a post-doc for a year afterwards to make sure my paper got published. It was actually a cool paper and I’m still very proud of it.”
“Grad school can be really tough for reasons you don’t imagine. For me, the tests and the hours weren’t the reason grad school was hard. It was all of the other stuff.
It was the first time in my life that I felt average. Science was my thing, science was my baby and it was such a core part of my identity. It became very hard to admit that I was struggling and to realize that everyone I was working with was so freaking smart. The imposter syndrome thing – it’s a real thing.”
She gives us a bunch of sage advice for graduate school:
“Don’t just rely on one mentor. No one person can help fulfill all the aspects you need training on – from the personal to the technical. It’s unfair to expect one person to help you with everything.”
“You need to take ownership of your career. It’s okay to make decisions about how you’re going to spend your time. Don’t allow the feeling that you have to be in lab all of the time to take over your life, because you’ll burn out. Sometimes your most creative insight happens when you get to step away from the bench for a little bit. You get to interact with people who have an idea or know something that could be the key to fixing that experiment you couldn’t fix.”
She tells us a bit about how exciting her job at Biomeme is now – how many hats she wears (lab designer, manufacturer, experimentalist, study coordinator), and about some of the projects she is most excited about. They are collaborating with a team in Sierra Leone to use their device for Ebola testing. They’ve also partnered with another group at nearby Drexel University to explore the role of their device in point of care STI testing. She’s incredibly excited to get the results back from both studies.
But for now, it’s time for the results of our PCR study --- do either Megan or I have the MTHFR mutation?
I can’t think of a better way to spend an evening than extracting [my own] DNA, drinking home-brewed beer, chatting with two awesome women about science and life, and learning that I’m a mutant! I really wish I had stolen that thermal cycler so I could start genotyping my Bonsai tree….