Monday, April 22, 2013

Stephanie Cole: Interview with an ECBC Postdoctoral Associate

The R&T Connection is reprising its series highlighting the Edgewood Chemical Biological Center’s (ECBC) postdoctoral associates, and we begin with Stephanie Cole, Ph.D., an associate with the National Research Council’s (NRC) Research Associateship Program. Cole is currently working with a stem cell team under Harry Salem, Ph.D., Chief Scientist for Life Science, for which she has already received several accolades.

“Stephanie has been such a great addition to our team,” said Salem. “Working with the postdoctoral associates is as much a rewarding experience for me as I hope it is for them. Having someone like Stephanie on the team brings such energy and talent to the work we do.”

Cole joined this program after receiving her undergraduate degree from McDaniel College and her Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University. She recently sat down with us to tell us more about her experience as an NRC postdoctoral associate.

How did you get involved in the NRC’s Research Associateship Program?

When I was completing my Ph.D., I went to the NRC’s website and looked at all of the research opportunities they had listed. From those opportunities, I saw that ECBC has lots of interesting research and it seemed like a great place to work. I had an interview and had to complete a lengthy application which includes a ten-page research proposal. It’s an extensive process!

What drew you to ECBC?

I was interested in chem and bio, so the aspect of that here seemed like a really good fit. I was interested in studying chemical toxicology and this provided a unique opportunity to do that because there aren’t many labs that do that. Also, my husband and I live in Bel Air and our families are both nearby, so the local aspect was certainly appealing.

How long will this position last?

The NRC post docs are for a year, and are renewable up to three years. I’ve been here nine months so far, and I’d absolutely love the chance to be here for the full three years.

How did you know you wanted to be a scientist and go into this field?

Before my senior year in high school, I didn’t know what I wanted to do but I knew it wasn’t science! But I ended up getting talked into taking an AP Biology course and I had the most amazing teacher. He made it so fun and I ended up doing pretty well, and it just got me hooked. In college, I just kept learning and taking more classes, and had a few summer internships where I got to do research. I realized I really enjoyed doing research and experiments – it felt like a puzzle that I could figure out. So, I decided to pursue that route. It was amazing—one teacher just made such a difference in my life.

Tell me more about what you do here at ECBC.

As part of Dr. Salem’s team, we’re all working together to develop the “human on a chip.” All of the post docs have been assigned different organs to study independently, with the goal of one day being able to connect them all together. I’ve been assigned the liver, so my focus is to create a model for liver metabolism and to study the effects of human metabolism on toxicity using subcultures. In layman’s terms, a lot of current toxicity studies use animal models, but animals metabolize compounds very differently than humans do. We’re working on developing models in vitro, or outside of the body, to test various chemicals. We take liver cells from human cadavers and culture them; they’re metabolically active and they’ve been shown to metabolize things the same way as they would in vivo, or inside of the body, so we can have effective experiments that will help us understand how humans metabolize toxins differently from animals.

What is the goal of this research?

We can look at therapeutics, or ways to treat certain reactions to compounds. But one of the big fields of study is looking at human estimates; based on animal studies we can actually use this type of research to estimate what the human response would be to those compounds. This is a nice system for conducting that type of research. Right now we’re just working on the concepts and trying to build up this area of study. There are a lot of different avenues we can take with this area of research.

What is a typical day like for you?

I spend about 40-50 percent of my time in the lab, planning out experiments. I have a lot of help from other scientists in the lab as well. The other portion of my time is mostly spent reading, writing, trying to think of new ideas for projects or different ways we can go with this project and writing research papers. The rest of my time is for more administrative things such as attending meetings.

What would you like to do after this?

I’d like to stay at ECBC if possible. I’d like to maybe be a PI in a government lab, and I’m really interested in continuing with Army and government research. This is a nice transition to learn the Army and the environment and then hopefully do that one day.

If you had to pick the most challenging part of your work, what would it be?

Honestly one of the most challenging things right now is the budgetary constraints and how that effects getting funding. As a new post doc, something I really want to get out of this is grant writing experience, but in the current climate it can be hard to seek more funding. The good thing, though, is that this is a field which will always be relevant, so I feel like there will be opportunities down the road for that experience.

What is the most exciting part of your work?

Being at the cutting edge of this technology; with the stem cells and the in vitro toxicity testing, it’s been really fun to be at the cutting edge of science. I really enjoy attending conferences and meeting others in this field, collaborators we could maybe partner with one day. And knowing our ideas are brand new is very fun and provides a lot of opportunities to write papers and continue to learn more.

What are some things you enjoy outside of work?

I really like running, that’s a big hobby of mine. I also like knitting and enjoy reading all kinds of different genres. Right now, I’m really into the Game of Thrones series which is great because now I can watch the series on HBO as well! 

What is one interesting fact about yourself that not many people here may know about you?

Hmm…good question. I’m not used to talking about myself so that’s a tough one! I really enjoy making bread, which takes a lot of patience and also kind of applies the same concepts of conducting science experiments. I do that on the weekends a lot—there’s nothing like homemade bread.

What advice would you give to a student today who is interested in being a scientist?

Talk to people; make those connections—the more people you know, the more you can find out about what you’re interested in. See if you can get internships, which provide such great experience, especially in labs. If you can get your foot in the door it can really be the best way to go, and it can also help you figure out if that is the kind of work you really want to pursue.

To learn more about the NRC’s Research Associateship Program, please visit

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