Being drawn to science
The following interview with Erin Conlon, GSAS PhD candidate in Biological Sciences, was originally published here.
Where did you grow up?
West Windsor, NJ.
What drew you to your field?
I had always been drawn to science, but in college I thought I would end up majoring in physics or chemistry. I started studying biology during my sophomore year with a friend, and became very interested in the ways biology could synthesize an abstract understanding of molecules with their broader implications for an organism. There are so many interesting questions in biology, and no limits to the methods used to solve them.
How would you explain your current research to someone outside of your field?
My research is on the neurodegenerative disease ALS, commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, which recently received a lot of attention through the Ice Bucket Challenge. Some people who develop ALS have genetic mutations, and my work focuses on understanding how the most common of these genetic mutations leads to disease. My approach is to study the molecules relevant to this genetic mutation in vitro, or outside of the context of the living organism, to better understand how they behave, so that we can make predictions about what goes wrong during disease. We then test these informed predictions in the brains of patients who have donated their bodies to science after death. We hope that this work will lead to a knowledge of specific interactions that can be targeted therapeutically, and that it may inform our understanding of the forms of ALS that don’t occur as a result of a known genetic mutation.
What do you enjoy most about being a student at Columbia GSAS?
I love living in New York City. I have also gained an appreciation for the times of year when campus is very quiet, like winter break, when the only people around are other graduate students and post-docs.
What resources or opportunities that Columbia provides have been most valuable to you?
I collaborate with a lab at Columbia University Medical Center, through which I gain incredible access to clinical experts and the biological tissue samples that I use in my research. There is also a great undergraduate research program that has introduced me to some really bright students. Right now, there is a smart, motivated young woman who comes to the lab every day and helps me conduct experiments. The relationship is mutually beneficial; she learns how to use experimental techniques, and I get assistance with my work.
Is there a common misconception about a topic in your field that you wish you could correct?
That biology is all memorization. While my work requires a lot of specialized knowledge, most of it relies on critical thinking and troubleshooting. After enough repetition, things become ingrained, but I never set out to memorize anything.
What do you consider your greatest achievement?
In college, I was the captain of the Stanford Lightweight Crew team, and stroked the boat that won the first national championship medal in the history of the program. I’m very proud to have been a part of such an outstanding group of athletes.
Who are your heroes in real life?
Hillary Clinton. I think she’s such an intelligent and inspiring woman.
Where is your favorite place to eat on or around campus?