Meagan Ward, Flatmate Correspondent
Originally published September 2006.
M: Why did you want to complete a PhD? What the hell were you thinking?
A: What the hell indeed. When I was 16 years old I wanted to study biophysics. I was good at physics, but biology was my passion. One of my teachers said there was no money in it and that I should do electrical engineering. Well I tried and hated it. I changed to physics during my first year at college. In my second year I started doing courses in biophysics and rediscovered my original passion. As luck would have it, one of my professors, Nick Franks, one of the most gifted scientists and teachers I’ve ever met, needed a grad student when I graduated. Plasma and High Energy physics didn’t get a lookin. I was off to biophysics and I had work to do! And boy was I in over my head…
M: Where did you do your PhD training?
A: Imperial College, University of London. It’s Britain’s version of MIT. Beer, rugby, insane lecture and lab schedule. M: What was your project? A: Well, the 4th one and the one I got my degree with was “The effects of general anaesthetics on a neuronal 5-HT3 receptor” – read all about it in Br. J. Pharm. The ones that went by the wayside during the first 2.5 years included patch clamp studies of yellow speckled cells of the right parietal ganglion of lymnaea stagnalis, C6 glioma and the breeding of alcohol insensitive guppies. Urggh.
M: What brought you to Emory? The research opportunity, Coca-Cola cash, HOTlanna Buckhead clubs?
A: Not baseball (Go Cubs!). Two splendid blokes: Jim Zaidan and Peter Sebel, the chair and vice chair of Anesthesiology. These guys are straight shooters who I’d trust my life with. They put together a package I just couldn’t say no to. Part of that package was the chance to be part of the Emory neuro-community.
M: What committees would you like to join and think you could contribute most to? What about the program most needs to be addressed in your eyes?
A: Mentoring and pastoral care for students AND faculty. When things are going well, this is the best job in the world. However, when it doesn’t go well, it’s lonely and horrifying and when that happens to us, we all need to know that there is a listening ear we can share our problems with. I don’t want our students and faculty to visit some of the doldrums I’ve been to and so I’d like to be closely involved with the well being of all members of our program. We already have some great listeners, but I think we could do with a few more.
M: Why anesthesiology? What’s so exciting that it will put me to sleep?
A: Many reasons. Philosophically, I get to think about consciousness all day. How Descartesian is that?! Scientifically, anesthetics modulate so many aspects of neural function, it makes them fascinating pharmacological tools. Practically, modern surgery wouldn’t exist without anesthesia and despite 150 years of research, we still don’t know how these drugs work at the molecular level.
M: You’ve just been awarded your first RO1 from the NIH, correct?
A: Yep. M: In a few short words, if that is possible, what is the proposal? A: We’re trying to work out how the GABA(A) receptor opens and closes its channel and how progesterone metabolites and general anesthetics acutely modulate receptor function.
A: Drugs n’ women. Sic. Partial agonists and Shannon & Carrie (my tech and postdoc) cost money.
M: Are you interested in taking on any grad students?
A: Yes! Absolutely!
M: When away from patch-clamping HEK cells, how do you like to spend your time?
A: Watching England beat the French in rugby, sipping a pint down at the Thinking Man Tavern, skiing out west,…
M: What were your highest and lowest moments in your academic past?
A: High: The N2O tank in my old lab, getting my PhD, getting the page proofs for my first paper, not getting triaged on my first R01 application, proving my old boss wrong and getting a paper into Nature. Low: Being told “Andy, you’re not the smartest guy in the lab, so you have to work harder than the other guys to make up for it”. Blowing 6 months of data collection because of an error in a control experiment I rushed.
M: Personal highs and lows?
A: Lows: The usual, bereavements, break-ups. Although in hindsight, life is so good right now, I should count the breakups as positive things. Highs: Meeting Meag in New Orleans.
M: Good answer. What do you think are the potential long-term effects of the current NIH funding situation?
A: I shudder to think. Funding lines are still sliding, PIs are shrinking their labs, getting out of academic science; junior faculty aren’t getting started. Thankfully, our program is still thriving. NS is not going away.
M: What do you see for yourself in both your personal and professional future? Drug development, more RO1s, ring shopping?
A: Yeah, and I’ve got to get a driving license too.
M: Another good answer. Any final words of wisdom you could provide to current unsuspecting grad students in terms of pursuing a career in science?
A: Follow your heart. Love what you do. Don’t give into dogma. Your project has 3 parts: 1. the idea 2. grinding it out 3. FINISHING You’ll spend most of your time on #2. Don’t forget about #3. Don’t write your thesis during your postdoc. Finish one thing before starting another.