Science Grad Students Discuss Their Work: Schiller’s New Seminar Series

by Maura Kelly

When Laura J. Steinberg took the helm of the Schiller Institute for Integrated Science and Society at Boston College in 2020, she spoke to students about what they wanted out of the center—and learned that, perhaps first and foremost, they wanted community. That goal was one of many Steinberg had in mind when, with encouragement from the various science department heads, she launched a graduate student seminar series earlier this year. She hopes the talks will help science students across and within disciplines get to know each other, while also giving them an opportunity to explain their work to non-specialist peers. “It’s a chance to practice in a low-stakes environment,” as Steinberg says. Moreover, Steinberg hopes the discussions will also prompt the next generation of leaders to “put their work in the context of a greater problem, and do it in a way that other disciplines can be brought into the conversation,” thereby helping to honor the institute’s commitment to a collaborative approach to the connected issues of environment, energy, and health. 

The series began on March 21st, with inaugural speaker Quishi Ma explaining his work. New to BC, Ma transferred from Marquette University in January, along with his mentor Associate Professor Jier Huang, Schiller’s newest core faculty member. “We are trying to find new materials to address the environmental crisis,” Ma explains. “We’re looking into how to convert carbon dioxide into useful chemicals like methanol, and to do that, we’re trying to understand the physical and chemical properties of those materials.” Ma began his talk by describing why he chose his scientific focus: “The greenhouse effect is very serious now, and we need to reduce concentrations of carbon dioxide and, we hope, convert it into other things,” he says. “A lot of research already shows there is a good ability to capture and convert carbon dioxide, but there isn’t much on the physical and chemical properties that we need to understand, to develop more efficient ways to use the converted materials.”

In the audience during Ma’s talk was Assistant Professor of Chemistry Lucas Bao—who asked a number of questions once Ma was finished. “As someone with a keen interest in energy and materials research from a physical perspective, I am eager to learn more,” Bao says. “And during the talk, I gained valuable insights into state-of-the-art spectroscopic techniques employed by Jier’s group. Although the presentation did not delve into technical specifics, I now have a general understanding of what these techniques can and cannot measure.” He added: “As a theoretical chemist, this knowledge will be helpful, as it allows me to calculate what cannot be measured experimentally and to provide my experimental colleagues with theoretical analysis to help them make accurate interpretations of their results.” The exchange was instructive for Ma, too. “Professor Bao does quantum chemistry, and my research relies on some of that, but I don’t go too deep into it,” he says. “Professor Bao gave a lot of helpful advice.” 

Steinberg was there on the 21st as well, and she left impressed. Ma’s listeners were “rapt,” she said, which pleased her. “We wanted to give the people in their seats a chance to expand their thinking and bring to bear their scientific curiosity on projects and problems that are not part of their everyday work, or even the work they hear about in their department seminars,” she says. “Sometimes the best scientific investigations or explorations start when graduate students meet and get excited about each other’s work.” She added, “The idea is to formulate new approaches and to develop new research directions.”

The chair of BC’s Biology department, Professor Welkin Johnson, has been one of the series’ most enthusiastic proponents. Like Steinberg, he’s hopeful that it might lead researchers in creative directions. “Everyone says we need to get the sciences talking to each other, but it’s hard to figure out how to do that,” he says. “Once you give a public talk, though, people have a reason to approach you and ask about your research.”

The second speaker in the series has made her own efforts to reach beyond her lab. Bharathi Sundaresh, a PhD candidate in Microbial Systems Biology, has been studying how bacteria evolve to “hide” from our immune system, a focus fueled by her concern about rising rates of antibiotic resistance—a problem linked, both directly and indirectly, to climate change.  “As the climate warms, bacterial antibiotic resistance is on the rise—with heat increasing horizontal gene transfer and growth rates,” she explains. What’s more, climate disasters—which can lead to pollution, waterborne infections, and decreased sanitation—can also contribute to antibiotic resistance. In part because of the serious widespread problems that antibiotic resistance could cause, Sundaresh is also interested in the practical applications of her research. To that end, she has participated in three Boston-area biotech business incubator programs. “Part of what I’m exploring through my PhD work is how we can develop antibodies that would bind to a bacterial pathogen and disable it from evading certain components of our immune system, which would in turn help to re-establish the body’s innate immune response,” she says. 

Before Sundaresh attended her first incubator program—Nucleate, a student-run accelerator out of Harvard Medical School—she wasn’t convinced she wanted to move into the business world. That changed by the time she participated in the course’s final pitch competition. “I was so excited by the innovative work that’s happening, especially in Boston, I felt really invigorated, and excited,” she says. And now? “I hope to take my career to the next step, using some of my learnings, whether in the microbiology space or another, and really bringing novel innovations from academia to patients.” She’ll talk more about her experience in the incubator programs during her April 4 discussion.  

The series will conclude for the semester on April 26, when Eliza Greiner, from the Department of Psychology & Neuroscience, will talk about the neural circuitries that govern feeding, before resuming in the fall. “We hope it becomes part of the fabric of graduate student life for students in the sciences here,” says Steinberg, who plans to make it an ongoing feature of the institute. Bao, for one, is all for it. Ma’s talk, he says, has “opened up exciting possibilities for future collaborations.”