The Ph.D.s Behind ‘My Ph.D. Story’: Lena


Curious Kid –> Cheerleader –> Scientist?

Before we start the show, we would like to introduce ourselves!

I’m Lena–one half of the team behind ‘My Ph.D. Story’. Tomorrow you’ll hear from Vaishali!

I grew up in the Sweetest Place on Earth–Hershey, Pennsylvania (and no, we don’t get sick of eating chocolate!). I spent most of my childhood galavanting about my grandparent’s farm, digging through dirt, swimming in the creek behind my house, and reading every book I could get my hands on. While I was a curious kid, I was also a weird kid. Why? Because when I grew up, I wanted to be a forensic pathologist…so that I could do autopsies. Also–something that always comes as a surprise to those who know me–I was a cheerleader from the third grade up through my freshman year of college. I still participate in alumni events with my high school and am always very excited to serve as a judge for cheer tryouts each year!

After high school, I went on to Saint Joseph’s University, where I began studying psychology, hoping to eventually pursue a career in cognitive behavioral research. After my first year, I realized my interests were more in line with studying biology, and thus began my official journey towards becoming a ~*scientist*~. I also picked up a minor in Latin, because why not, right?

During my undergraduate years at St. Joe’s, I began volunteering, and ultimately spending most of my free time, in a microbiology lab studying a fascinating little microbe called Bdellovibrio bacteriovorus. This wild little bacteria are essentially vampires–they suck out and feed on the cytoplasm of other bacteria, ultimately killing them. Since B. bacteriovorus is a bacterial predator, more recent work has focused on applying it clinically, environmentally, or industrially as a living antimicrobial agent, especially against biofilms. My work in John Tudor’s lab eventually resulted in an honors thesis in which I quantitatively assessed transcription profiles of genes required for bacterial predation. I credit Dr. Tudor, along with many other St. Joe’s faculty, for being incredibly supportive mentors and igniting my interest in microbiology research. I also met my husband while doing summer research, so there was more good than just science that came out of my work in the Tudor lab!

After graduating from St. Joe’s in the spring of 2012, I quickly headed off to graduate school at Temple University School of Medicine (now Lewis Katz School of Medicine at Temple University) to study biomedical science. Through most of this, I was also working part time at the King of Prussia Mall at Madewell because I also have a serious retail therapy problem–it’s not the worst vice in the world?

To this day, I have mixed feelings about heading straight from college to graduate school, but more on that point later.

As I was finishing up my first two research rotations (the first was my personal nightmare, and the second didn’t have funding to keep me), I remember seeing a flyer for a seminar from a new professor–his name was Italo Tempera, and I can’t remember exactly the name of the seminar, but it hinted at an interest in studying transcription regulation in the Epstein-Barr virus, and I was fascinated. So I went to the seminar, and I knew that I had to work in that lab. I met with him a few days later and asked if I could join his lab. He said no. And I cried in his office…the first time we ever spoke.

But. With some convincing and a little luck (as most things in science go), I did join Italo’s lab. I spent the next four-ish years there studying the role of the human proteins PARP1 and CTCF and their role in regulating viral gene expression in Epstein-Barr virus latency and reactivation (you can read my work here if you are so inclined) I loved the work. I loved the people. But these were the most trying years of my life. I’ll talk more about this as we roll out our first story next week–the story of my own graduate school experience–so stay tuned.

After graduate school, I settled into a postdoctoral position back in my hometown! Over the past almost two years, I’ve been working at Penn State College of Medicine, continuing to study regulation of latency and viral reactivation of EBV. For now, I live outside of Harrisburg with my husband and our two French bulldogs, I’m an avid yogi, I enjoy cooking at home, I have an unhealthy obsession with Bitmoji, and my husband and I spend a significant portion of our evenings binge-watching The Office or Rick & Morty.

I’m sure as we work to build this community together, you’ll hear from me periodically. But, after Vaishali and I introduce ourselves, we want to really focus on you.

So stay tuned for my “Challenge” story this coming Monday, and my “Happiness” story next Friday!

Until then,

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