Mentor: Brian York, Ph.D.
Undergraduate Majors: Biological Sciences, Mathematics, and Secondary Education
Undergraduate School: University of Nebraska—Lincoln
Why did you choose BCM?
I chose BCM for several reasons. My initial draw to BCM was due to its location in the Texas Medical Center, which just so happens to be the largest medical center in the world, so I knew that the amount of resources and level of expertise I’d have access to would be unparalleled. Building off of that, Baylor is also home to many faculty who are leaders in their field. BCM also boasts over 20 cores that are available to help supplement my research, from sequencing, to building a mouse model, to performing and analyzing mass spectrometry. Finally, it’s a school that really supports and facilitates collaboration. Being able to ask individuals outside of my lab, whether it’s other trainees or faculty, really indicated to me that this is a place I would thrive.
On a more personal level, I knew that BCM was the place for me after my interview weekend. I come from a small town in Nebraska, and even though I don’t think “Nebraska Nice” is a super catchy state slogan (though it is better than “Nebraska: It’s not for everyone”) it is true. As cliché as it sounds, BCM felt like home. The graduate students and faculty that I interacted with were very welcoming and friendly. Plus, the students seemed genuinely happy, which is something that was very important to me. I knew that research was tough, but the fact that the students seemed to still be enjoying life and hanging out with each other really cemented BCM as the place for me. Nobody falls through the cracks here, everyone’s willing to help me when I’m struggling, and it honestly feels like a little family.
What is Your Research Interest?
My lab focuses on the metabolic and transcriptional reprogramming that occurs in the liver during the progression of liver disease, from simple steatosis to full-blown hepatocellular carcinoma. We seek to understand how the liver switches metabolic programs during disease and how this switch is beneficial for disease progression. My research focuses specifically on the contributions of a calcium-activated kinase to this metabolic reprogramming in the hepatocyte in the context of overnutrition. It’s recently been appreciated that improving hepatic health has the potential to improve whole-body health in the context of obesity and metabolic syndrome. As such, my project aims to understand how disruption of this kinase in the liver serves to improve overall health of mice on high-fat diet. Additionally, I hope to identify novel substrates and interacting partners of this kinase that may be used as therapeutic targets aimed at preventing and regressing liver disease.
Why did you choose your mentor?
I chose my mentor in a way that’s a little different from most. Coming to graduate school, I didn’t really have a specific interest in what I wanted to study, I just knew that I wanted to do research. As a result, when I began looking for a mentor and picking rotations, I looked for someone that I would be able to get along with for the time that I’m here. Choosing a mentor is a big deal, and I wanted to be able to come into work every day and be able to be myself and have fun while being pushed to be the best scientist that I can be, and that’s what I found with Dr. York and his lab. I knew that I’d be able to find a project in just about any lab that I would be able to get excited about, but I wanted to make sure that I found somewhere I’d be completely comfortable being myself, which would allow me to do my best work and push myself.
How does Baylor's location in the Texas Medical Center enhance your training and research?
I think the most obvious answer is the accessibility of resources and expertise. While BCM boasts top faculty in many fields, it can’t host all of them, and that’s one of the major benefits that I have experienced in my training. I’ve been able to reach out to faculty at other institutions and receive help and guidance with my project, and it’s not just over email or a phone call. I’ve had several opportunities to meet with non-BCM faculty in face-to-face meetings, and that’s so much more beneficial to me because not only is it easier to ask questions and get more complete answers, but the conversations take turns that can only occur in actual meetings.
In addition to the mentoring, I’ve also benefited from access to resources. Again, BCM has a lot of state-of-the-art equipment, but there’s a limit. However, that limit is a lot less noticeable when it’s very likely that one of the other institutions in the TMC has the equipment you need or the equipment that will make your research go a little faster. Finally, since there are so many hospitals around, I’ve had access to patient samples, which gives me a major boost in my research and allows me to monitor how comparable my models are with what is actually seen in human patients. Being part of the TMC gives you an edge that is hard, if not impossible, to find anywhere else. The best part is, everybody is so willing to collaborate and offer their help and expertise!
What activities are you involved with at the College?
I’m involved with several committees at BCM. The past two years, I’ve served on STAC, which is the Student Temporary Advisory Committee, for MCB, one of CCB’s legacy programs. As a STAC student advisor, I mentored new students as they navigated their first year of graduate school. We’d meet once a term to go over the major classes and events they would be expected to complete that term. It also provided first-years an opportunity to ask questions and get a better feel of the school. I also served on MCB’s GEC (General Education Committee) for two years. In this role, I was involved in reviewing applications, leading interview weekends, monitoring student progress, and nominating students for awards and honors. I also served on CCB’s steering committee for a year, which serves the same purpose as MCB’s GEC, and CCB’s curriculum committee, where I was involved in designing the program’s curriculum and gathering student input.
Outside of committees, I’ve been a TA for several classes. TA’s lead sessions that cover lectures and review the material presented in them. These sessions also serve as a chance to ask questions on the material without faculty members present.
BCM students and faculty are also very involved in the community and often get together as groups to go volunteer. I’ve been involved in groups that helped in the clean-up after Harvey and ones that visit children in the children’s hospital. It’s a great way to get out and help others while meeting new people and making new friends.
What do you enjoy most about living in Houston?
I’d have to say the wide variety of things to do. I enjoy checking out new restaurants, and in Houston, there’s never a shortage of new places to try. Because Houston is such a diverse city, so is it’s food scene, and I’m able to try new things all the time. The cultural festivals are also really fun to check out. The museums are great as well, I’m always down to go to the Museum of Natural Sciences or the Museum of Fine Arts. I also like to hang out in the park nearby the school (which is where the Houston Zoo is!) after work and get lost in nature a little bit. On the weekends, I’ll sometimes drive out to the state parks and spend a day away from the city.
I’m big into red dirt country, so the music scene is right up my alley. There’s so many music venues in the city, it’s insane. And if my band isn’t coming directly to Houston, it’s likely they’ll be somewhere in the area, and I’m always up for a weekend road trip. Speaking of, having other large cities within a 3-hour drive is great and make for fun weekend getaways when you need to get out of Houston. Plus, they each have their own personality, which is awesome!
On a more practical note, housing is really affordable and the cost of living is low compared to other cities of similar size. With the graduate student stipend, I’m able to easily afford a one-bedroom apartment close to the med center, by myself, and still have plenty of money to do the fun things I like to do. The public transportation is great in and around the med center, so even without a car, it’s easy to get around, whether you’re getting groceries or seeing a movie.
What are your career plans?
Currently, I plan to pursue a post-doc and then obtain a faculty position at a more teaching-focused university. Teaching has always been one of my passions, which is why I spent a couple years teaching high school math before coming here, and I want to do that again, but at the college level. I would also enjoy having a small lab, but I don’t’ want that to be my main focus. At least that’s what I’m feeling at this point in my training, who knows what I’ll be feeling in a couple years or after my post-doc!
What aspects of training at BCM do you feel are most influential in preparing you for your intended career?
I think I’ve touched on all of this in the previous questions. The major one is my mentor and the lab environment he has created. He provides input and feedback on a regular basis so that I stay on track with my projects and don’t spend too much time spinning my wheels. He also pushes me to learn as many skills as I can, not only from him, but also other lab members and individuals in other labs. The collaborative environment that is encouraged definitely benefits me as it gives me experience working with other scientists and communicating with them. My thesis committee also provides invaluable feedback and guidance. Finally, like I’ve mentioned before, the resources I have access to, both at BCM and other members of the TMC, also help me in my training, providing experience and opportunities I wouldn’t have anywhere else. I know that I’ll have a competitive edge when I start looking for post-doc positions.
What advice do you have for prospective students?
The best advice I have is pick somewhere based on more than just academics and resources. Yes, those are very important factors, but there’s more to a great training. Pick somewhere where you feel comfortable and you can see yourself enjoying life, both in and out of the lab, for the next 5-7 years. Graduate school is a huge commitment. BCM is a great school with amazing faculty and extensive resources in a city with so many things to do and see, but it’s not right for everyone. We’d love to have you come here, but if it’s not the right fit, that’s okay. We want you to end up at the school that will allow you to thrive and while we hope that’s Baylor, it might not be. As my mentor likes to say, “you can’t fit a square peg through a round hole.” Baylor was the right fit for me, so I hope you’ll see if it’s the right fit for you, too!