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A day in the lab: Stanford scientists share their stories, what fuels their work

Lab Crawl - smallRecently a notable group of Stanford faculty and students working in the basic sciences - where fundamental questions such as how we exist, how cells divide, and how the brain thinks - opened up their labs to a small group of visitors eager to learn more about their work.

Guests, including a number of aspiring young scientists, toured the labs and gained a rare, hands-on perspective of what it’s like to travel the journey of a basic scientist, a journey of sometimes unknown destination. Faculty, graduate, and post-doctoral students shared stories of how they came to do this type of work and what attracted them to the exploratory and collaborative nature of Stanford. Many spoke of frustration with the current trend of investing primarily in research with “proven outcomes” vs. the more fundamental, high-risk, high-reward work being done in labs like theirs.

A highlight of the day was a lunchtime talk by Adam de la Zerda, PhD. Adam is a talented young scientist who came to Stanford to study engineering but, spurred by a personal experience, he instead went on to bridge the gap between engineering and medicine to develop and patent a technology that converts light waves into ultrasound waves using nanoparticles. Called photoacoustic molecular imaging, the process generates images with unprecedented resolution compared to current methods such as computed tomography or magnetic resonance imaging. The technology, soon entering the human-trial phase, has the potential to revolutionize tumor detection and removal. Adam credits his success to the freedom he was given at Stanford to pursue his passion, thanks to early supporters and mentors who were willing to take a risk on his yet-unproven work and talents.

Lab Crawl2 - smallOther faculty members and students who shared their research that day were working on a wide variety of innovative projects, including developing new approaches to gene therapy, genetics, and deep sequencing; analyzing DNA breaks to anticipate disease; better understanding touch, the least understood of the five senses; and analyzing the effects of salmonella to more effectively prevent and fight the disease in developing areas.

Hosting the day was Dan Herschlag, PhD, senior associate dean of graduate education and postdoctoral affairs at Stanford, who told the visitors, “It's this kind of research, focused on innovative but unproven avenues of investigation and disruptive ideas, that will bring us to places we’ve never known before, help launch new industries, and usher forth new drugs and therapies to treat the most intractable illnesses.”

Eileen DiFranco is director of communications and media in the Office of Medical Center Development at Stanford.

Previously: The lure of research: How Nobel winner Thomas Südhof came to work in the basic sciences, The “sky’s the limit” for young Stanford structural biologist, Funding basic science leads to clinical discoveries, eventually and Why basic research is the venture capital of the biomedical world
Photos by Steve Fisch

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