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CONTENTS: President’s Message Finding a Voice High Achieving Scientist: Dr. Richard Sifers Social Activities Featured Member: Rossi Irobalieva AGSD Officers: 2012-2013

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Hello there! My name is Stephen Murray and I am the president of the Association for Graduate Student Diversity for 20122013. I want to welcome you to another fine edition of our newsletter and tell you a couple of the news stories for this issue. But first I want to tell a bit about our organization. The Association for Graduate Student Diversity (AGSD) at Baylor College of Medicine (BCM) strives to increase diversity, promote retention and graduation of graduate students in the biomedical sciences, and foster professional and career development of our members. What does this mean to you? Well, it means we are an organization by the students, for the students. We try to provide a platform for leadership opportunities and networking and we hold many activities (both academic and just fun) and are always working to have more. This is where you can help out! Have a good idea or just want to get involved here at BCM? Send us an email at and let us know! So what is new and exciting with our organization? Well the first big news story is that we are officially a graduate school organization, the first at BCM! Another exciting piece of news is our new Enhancing English Communication Skills groups that meet several times a week- keep reading to find out more information on this exciting opportunity. For more information on our activities both past and present, read on to other articles written by our officers and members.

AGSD mission statement: We strive to increase the diversity of the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences at BCM, by involving students and post-docs of all cultural, ethnic, and educational backgrounds. If you are interested in joining AGSD, contact Those interested in opportunities like writing articles, editing or designing of the newsletter, or suggesting names for the High Achieving Scientist column contact:



Finding a Voice Authors: Tabassum Majid & Stephen Murray “Sally Sells Seashells by the Seashore” - This famous tongue twister may be fun for most American born students when they started learning English, but for many who are new to the United States, this sentence lends insight into why integration is hard. Tongue twisters, idioms, pronunciation practice, and conversations about geography and culture are just some of the activities taking place at the English language skills groups available to you at Baylor College of Medicine each week. The English language groups were first started as a pilot program by Gayle Slaughter, PhD, Associate Dean for Graduate Student Diversity, to serve as a mode to improve conversational skills. A group of about 18 participants volunteered and were provided with both lunch and different topics each week to discuss, allowing for a comfortable place to have both native (facilitators) and non-native (participants) English speakers, practice speaking English. Once the pilot study was over, however, Stephen Murray, president of AGSD, felt that there needed to be a continuation for the participants, and thus the English language skills group was born. This all-volunteer group has continued to meet throughout the summer, and has attracted the interest of medical students, graduate students, post-doctoral fellows, laboratory technicians, spouses of employees of BCM, and students from Rice University. In a small classroom in the Alkek building, 5 to 35 people gather in small groups, discussing everything from “th” sounds to inspirational figures in American history. “The variety in the classes is enjoyable. We come from different places and this class gives us a chance to make friends,” says Xue, a participant of the group. Often, facilitators are learning just as much about Chinese, Japanese, French, Hispanic and Latin American, Korean, Taiwanese, and Indian culture as the participants do about the American culture when each group is sharing their views. In a recent meeting, quotes from famous individuals in pop culture helped spur conversations with participants on success, humor, and social norms. These seemingly small activities have had a big impact on helping participants identify confusing aspects of the American lifestyle, culture, and language and are targeted to help them feel more comfortable in a new country. Participants are always eager to join and ask for feedback in addition to bringing questions or phrases they have faced throughout the work week that they have had trouble understanding. A regular group of participants and facilitators attend weekly on Mondays and Wednesdays from 1-2 pm. Stephen Murray reflects, “The groups are going well. We still have new people showing up almost every session …overall we still have a great deal of interest and are always looking for more native English speakers to come help out.” The English language groups will continue as long as we are able to reserve rooms, and AGSD is happy to take more volunteers to participate or facilitate. The only qualifications are that you come with an open mind, some patience, and a sense of humor. If you are interested in volunteering or have any questions, feel free to contact Stephen Murray at

The English Language Groups are in session weekly on Mondays and Wednesdays from 1-2 pm



High Achieving Scientist: DR. RICHARD SIFERS, Ph.D. Dr. Richard Sifers earned a Ph.D. in the field biochemistry and biochemical genetics from the University Of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center in Oklahoma City, OK. His entire post-doc experience was spent with Dr. Savio Woo here at BCM. Currently, he operates an internationallyrecognized lab as a full professor in the department of Pathology and Immunology, and holds secondary appointments in the departments of Molecular Physiology and Biophysics, Molecular and Cellular Biology, Structural and Computational Biology, and Molecular Biophysics, Cellular, and Molecular Biology, Translational Biology and Molecular Medicine, and the Medical Scientists Training Program. In addition to his participation in those graduate programs he is a co-director for the graduate program in Immunology. He is also a faculty member of the BCM Human Genome Sequencing Center, Dan L. Duncan Cancer Center, Huffington Center on Aging, Center for Liver Diseases (Texas Children’s Hospital), Texas Medical Center Digestive Disease Center, and the Texas Gulf Coast Consortia. As an educator, he currently serves as a team teacher for the courses, “Foundations of Basic Science to the Science of Medicine: Core Concepts,” “Biology of Aging,” and “Pathophysiology of Disease.” He is also a teacher and co-director for the graduate school course “Organization of the Cell.” Dr. Sifers also serves as the Assistant Dean for Post-doctoral Research and Career Development. Finally, he has been extremely fortunate to receive numerous awards for his educational efforts, including: “Best Course,” “Best Lecturer” (for three consecutive years), a Fulbright and Jaworski Faculty Excellence Award (for Teaching and Evaluation), and the Robertson Presidential Award for Excellence in Education.” Dr. Richard Sifers agreed to answer some questions for our issue: Tell us about your experience as a graduate student. I entered graduate school after working for two years as an analytical chemist at an energy plant near Kansas City, MO. Upper management was so impressed with my work ethic and interpersonal skills that they offered me the ‘head scientist’ position. Within two days, I had decided to apply to graduate school because I wanted more out of life than a nine-to-five job (although the pay was outstanding). Graduate school was a very interesting experience because it was necessary for me to develop disciplines beyond what I had known. I actually failed my very first general biochemistry exam, and had ended up with the second-to-worst score among all the other graduate students. I worked very diligently thereafter and ended up with the second-highest score on the final exam. Interestingly, I bragged about this achievement to the guy that had made the worst score on the original exam, but it turned out that he had made the highest score on the final exam. From this experience, I learned that fear is a great motivator.




What are some of the skills that you acquired over time that have prepared you for your position? I was always a very hard working individual, having grown up on a farm/ranch in northwest Missouri. However, to do well in science I soon learned it was necessary for me to become more disciplined in many areas. Although I had learned how to properly design experiments and interpret the generated data, much of this had been accomplished at the expense of mastering other important subjects. For example, I had neglected the importance of writing, presentation, and organizational skills. Through much effort plus some useful guidance from various mentors, I eventually acquired not only the aforementioned skills but was able to master multi-tasking! Tell us about your work for the Post-doc Research and Career Development. Because of all the bench work required to earn a Ph.D., plus the well-meaning excessive participation of some mentors to ensure that the associated findings are published, some graduate students fail to fully develop the professional skills that are needed for the next step in their careers. Many mentors and members of federal and private funding agencies have begun to recognize these inadequacies when an individual begins his/her first post-doctoral position. Without these skills, it will be very difficult for some exceptional, technicallytrained individuals to succeed as an independent scientific investigator or to even successfully pursue a career that might diverge from having one’s own laboratory. Fortunately, several years ago the BCM graduate school began to provide numerous skill development workshops and courses (including a specific career development course) to help remedy this unfortunate situation. In fact, I am currently working with other deans and executive leaders at BCM in an attempt to establish a Career Development Center that will more fully organize all of these (and more) events, plus assist individuals with their career advancement. You teach some of the most useful biology courses at BCM, what is the best thing you like about teaching? I sincerely appreciate the accolades. However, to be very honest, I was never really interested in becoming a teacher. My reason for teaching in the graduate and medical schools was to simply fulfill the requirements for tenure and as a personal favor (for one of the basic science chairs) to fill a gap left by a faculty member that had left BCM. I had not considered that I might actually be good at it! What I like most about teaching is the opportunity to provide the next generation of scientists with some mechanistic understanding of how biology operates beyond the genome (at the level of the encoded proteins). I am particularly glad, and proud, that my lab actually discovered some of what I teach. This allows me to discuss the actual process of scientific inquiry without merely providing the students with general facts.


What is the most challenging thing about your position? Of course, research has its own unique challenges and these are too numerous to discuss in this particular column. However, in regard to my service to BCM as a dean, I would have to say that my greatest challenge is convincing graduate students and post-docs to consider their future beyond their present circumstances. Many don’t seem to understand that a little investment in skill development right now can go a long way to ensure their future success in whatever direction they eventually chose. Failure to fully utilize one’s resources is tragic, at least in my opinion. Finally, I wish that the executive leaders at BCM would do more to publicly recognize and reward faculty that serve as outstanding mentors. These people are directly responsible for developing the next generation of scientists and are therefore indirectly responsible for many of the future discoveries that will be made in science and medicine! What do you count as your greatest success? In terms of research, I chose to study how cells manage their secreted proteome (a term that was used by very few scientists at that time) as a late stage in gene expression, rather than to focus (like most scientists) on the genome and its transcription into mRNA (which I consider to represent an intermediate in gene expression). Using the human alpha1antitrypsin deficiency as a model, we were the first to mechanistically define the central roles played by asparginelinked oligosaccharides in managing the vast majority of the secreted proteome. We elucidated how the modified glycans first function to assist productive folding of the attached nascent peptide, and then orchestrate the intracellular disposal of permanently misfolded glycoproteins by a process that has been coined ER-associated degradation (ERAD). In doing this, we were one of the very first labs to recognize that ERAD and cellular stress response pathways (like the Unfolded Protein Response) contribute to both the etiology and pathogenesis of numerous loss-of-function and gain-of-toxic-function human diseases. We substantiated this notion by identifying a Single Nucleotide Polymorphism (SNP) in one of the central ERAD factors that creates a novel conditional hypomorphic allele that slows glycoprotein disposal and is responsible for the most common genetic form of childhood liver disease in the USA. What advice can you provide to young scientists regarding career paths? Although it will be necessary to study, at least to some extent, what is currently popular (in order to get funding) don’t limit your focus to the status quo. Rather, explore those areas in science in which you have passion and be ready to defend your ideas. You will have to overcome numerous obstacles, including negative personalities and rejections, if you want to be an original thinker.



Social Activities/Fundraising 2012 Author: Jaclyn Bravo During this past year, AGSD hosted a handful of social and community outreach activities on campus: Candy Grams In the weeks leading up to Valentine’s Day, AGSD designed and sold Candy Grams, which consisted of humorous scientific messages coupled with a sweet treat. Baylor College of Medicine students and staff sent messages to their friends and sweethearts on campus. In addition, we sold Candy Grams for patients at Texas Children’s Hospital, with sweet messages from well-wishers. Due to patient dietary restrictions, we provided a card and pencil or stickers attached to the message. There was a great deal of interest and response to our first fundraiser of the year, and we look forward another round next year! Movie Night Last month, AGSD hosted a free movie night showing Rise of the Planet of the Apes. We offered this event to draw out fellow students, post-docs and SMART students to both socialize as well as discuss the plot of the movie. AGSD sold popcorn and other delicious movie snacks with complimentary soda. Money raised from this social event will be used to promote and host future events. Due to the interest in this event, we hosted another one on September 27th, from 6-8pm in N315, where we showed Scott Pilgrim Vs The World. We will keep you posted about future movie nights. Graduate School Night IMSD, AGSD, and the SMART program shared a table during a graduate school organization night this July. The activity was dedicated towards informing the summer SMART students about the various programs present at BCM. We were able to interact with future young scientists and spend time sharing our experiences with students. Future Activities Recently, AGSD met with the Graduate Student Association at UT-Houston. We have proposed hosting various networking and social events with this group as well as others around the Texas Medical Center. One such idea to foster camaraderie would be a host a BCM Ping Pong Tournament, Bingo Night with prizes, and Relay Races between faculty, students, and post-docs. Because AGSD seeks to incorporate the many interests and diversity here at BCM, we are excited to have the chance to network with established organizations that conduct these events regularly. This fall, look forward to a Pumpkin Painting/Carving Contest to be held the week of Halloween to spread the fall cheer. Pumpkins will be judged for first, second, and third place. Currently, we are working on a partnership with a local hospital to donate these festive pumpkins to welcome this spooky fall holiday.

UPCOMING EVENTS: 1. BCM Social Dance Club and Latin Dance Factory will be offering 4 Saturday Classes on October 13 and 20, 2012, November 3 and 10, 2012 at 3-4 PM at the Rayzor Lounge $5 per class. 2. BCM Ping Pong Tournament. 3. Pumpkin Painting/Carving Contest. Stay tuned for updates.



Featured Member: ROSSI IROBALIEVA Tell us about your undergraduate experience and your journey to BCM. I went to college at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC). While I was there, I was fortunate to be a part of the Meyerhoff Scholarship Program – a program that focuses on underrepresented minority students, who are interested in pursuing a career in science. My first semester at UMBC, I decided to choose Bioinformatics and Computational Biology as my major, because I liked biology and computer science. This was a shiny new discipline at the time and while we only had one Bioinformatics specific seminar our senior year, the major itself provided me with the opportunity to dip my toes in all areas of science – math, biology, chemistry, physics and computer science. My senior year, I went to the Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students (ABRCMS). I was presenting my summer research and also checking out graduate schools (mostly trying to score some fee waivers). That’s where the Gulf Coast Consortia (GCC) table caught my eye. They had a huge poster and somewhere on there “Computational Biology” was written in large font. The representative kindly explained that first, I had to be accepted in one of the GCC (Texas) schools and then I could apply for any of the GCC fellowships. I turned around and since the University of Houston table was busy, I went to the BCM one and the rest is history. I had heard about BCM before – Dr. Slaughter had visited UMBC while I was there and a couple of my friends had come over for the SMART summer program. However, I had never been to Texas before my interview. But one look at Baylor College and I was sold! I came to BCM straight after college and I am a sixth year student in the Structural and Computational Biology and Molecular Biophysics (SCBMB) program now. I work in Dr. Wah Chiu’s lab. Dr. Chiu runs the National Center for Macromolecular Imaging at BCM and is the director of the SCBMB program. Our lab has about 35 people and more than 200 active projects. My focus changed a couple of years back and I now work with small nucleic acids. In fact, I work with the smallest specimens than anyone in the cryo community has ever worked with. My main project focuses on a small, but critical, segment of the HIV-1 genome. HIV packages two copies of its RNA genome and both are needed for a successful viral lifecycle. The region I study is responsible for genome encapsidation initiation. It is also the initiation site of dimerization of the two RNA copies, a process, which is very important for the virus. We work alongside our Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) collaborators. They are pushing the limits of NMR in the pursuit of studying this 52 kDa RNA (a bit too big for NMR), while on our end we are pushing the limits of cryo-EM (we usually like our specimens to be at least 100 kDa).

What are your career interests? I feel very strongly about science education. I find that most people do not care about science because of a bad academic experience or because they just do not see how science applies to ‘real life.’ One thing I am very passionate about is community outreach. I think my dream job would be to go around and talk to people about science and general medical topics and help them learn more about who they are (at the cell level) and about the world around them.





Could you share with us your experiences as a mentor? I have always had great mentors throughout high school, college and now grad school. One thing that they have all taught me is the importance of reaching out and giving back. I first started mentoring back in high school, where I was involved with an after school program that helped struggling math students. They all believed that they could not do math. My goal was to help them pass the mental barrier and show them how much fun math is. Then, my freshman year in college, I mentored a girl from a local middle school and in graduate school I have been involved in several mentoring activities, such as Saturday Morning Science. I find that mentoring is a two-way street – as a mentor, you always learn from your mentees. What are some extracurricular activities you have been involved in and what was your favorite? I tend to get involved in too many extracurricular activities. At BCM, I have been a part of Saturday Morning Science, AGSD (during the first two years, when we were still trying to establish ourselves as an organization and come up with a name!), the Graduate Student Council (also organized the First Year Initiative one year), teaching ballroom dancing as a part of BCM’s Social Dance Club and volunteering at several other events. My out-of-school activities include photography, yoga and running. I absolutely love working with students so I would have to say that Saturday Morning Science has been one of the most rewarding experiences. I find working with middle and high school students truly inspiring and eye-opening. These are all very bright, wonderful kids and some of them are faced with life challenges well beyond their age. Being able to interact with them, inspire them and encourage them is truly priceless. What is a typical day in your lab? Since I work in a cryo-EM lab and do a lot of computational work, my days are quite different from those of most other graduate students. My schedule is very dynamic. Some days I walk in at 7 am to make sure that the microscope I am using is cooled down and everything is set for a long day of data collection. Other days, I stroll in a bit later than that and spend my day doing data analysis, which often involves writing small scripts to run computational analysis on our clusters. Then sometimes, I spend my days staring at three-dimensional models and trying to make sense of my data.

Interacting with my lab mates is an integral part of my lab day. We take about science and bounce ideas off each other, but we also discuss pretty much everything else – politics, world events, life, and hobbies. How do you keep yourself motivated? Some days it is easy. I find simply walking through the medical center to be inspiring – we are so lucky to have so much awesome science surrounding us. However, research is hard and given that things fail more often than they work out, some days staying motivated can be truly a challenge. When an experiment keeps on not working out, I try to remember the big picture and look ahead and I often have to give myself a pep talk. Sometimes it also helps to switch gears and work on a different project for a while. Finally, I love traveling so the prospect of going to a cool and exciting conference is always extremely motivating. This past May, I went to a Gordon Research Conference in Europe. I had been thinking about this conference for the past two years and working toward being able to go and present my research. Having amazing lab mates does not hurt either – it is always nice to have someone to commiserate with and bounce off ideas. How about some of your favorite BCM moments? I always think fondly of my first semester at BCM. When I was not in my rotation lab or classes, I spent my time learning how to play pool from the guys in my program or studying for those very first graduate student exams. My lab has an annual Christmas white elephant party. This is one event that we all look forward to and start thinking about six months in advance. It is always a race to find the most awesome gift that everyone will want. Since our lab is so big, the gift picking part usually takes quite a while. And as for the food – we always have a potluck. With such a large and diverse group we always have a wonderful, delicious selection of food.



President- Stephen Murray Vice President/Treasurer- Tabassum Majid Secretary- Meagan Pitcher Social Committee Chair- Jaclyn Bravo Historian/Communications Chair- Benu Atri

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NEWSLETTER EDITORS: EXECUTIVE EDITOR: Benu Atri MANAGING EDITOR: Stephen C. Murray Article Editors Finding a Voice Maria Terrón High Achieving Scientist Meagan Pitcher AGSD-upcoming events Tabassum Majid Featured Member Stephen Murray

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AGSD Vol2, Issue1