Science Narratives is a series of interviews with students from diverse fields in science at various stages of their career. By learning more about individuals and their journey in science, this series has the goal of breaking the stereotypes in science and showcasing the diversity in STEM. We hope readers will find connections and inspirations in these stories told.
Lebaron Agostini is a 1st year Ph.D. student in the Genetics, Genomics, and Cancer Biology Program at Thomas Jefferson University. You can follow his work as co-founder of Bio Is Life Media and his #PathToPhD on Instagram @lee_the_scientist.
Describe your research or love for science in a haiku.
Science makes us great
Teamwork will make the dream work
Currently the lab focuses on different aspects of tumor initiation in various cancer types. My research focus is on the oncogenes Myc and MTBP, a Myc regulator. Overexpression of Myc has been shown to cause cancer in various cell types. Looking at changes in expression, or whether a gene is activated or repressed at a specific locus has been well studied in regards to Myc. I am interested in looking at the chromatin landscape surrounding Myc activity, and how Myc modulates the chromatin landscape at specific genes. I am also interested elucidating how binding partners of Myc allow for it to function in certain ways in tumor cells, but not in normal cells.
How did you start Bio Is Life Media?
I started Bio Is Life Media with Nate Velazquez, a digital marketer and a fellow PhD Student David Deming during our first year in our GGCB program. Dave and I both had independent platforms for science communication, something we are both really passionate about. David had started a web series on Youtube and I had created @Lee_The_Scientist Instagram account to educate and excite followers about biomedical science. After many discussions about scientific media and scientific reporting, we decided if we really wanted to improve the public’s perception and understanding of science, we needed build quality online content that cares less about website traffic and more about informing the public. The idea of Bio Is Life Media was conceived in the library while we were studying for an exam, with a lot of coffee and energy drinks present we started to lay down the foundation for the website. As 2 PhD students studying genetics and cancer, we didn’t really know how to get Bio Is Life Media off the ground, so we enlisted the help Nate Velazquez, a friend from David’s undergrad and an excellent digital marketer. The site you see today is the combination of our individual skills, passions, and our collaborative teamwork.
What kind of work does the team do?
The site has pretty diverse content surrounding biomedical science and just science all around. Contributors including myself, write about perspectives on the graduate experience, simplify recently published research, debunk pseudoscience claims, and interview young entrepreneurs and researchers in biotech. Becoming an online authority for scientific content is really where we’d like to be in a few years. We’d also like to promote healthy skepticism and scientific literacy amongst the public in a HUGE way.
Who is a female scientist you look up to and why?
Christine Eischen is someone I look up to. She is currently a Full Professor, Special Advisor to the President at Thomas Jefferson University Hospitals and my research mentor at TJU. Apart from the many contributions to science at Vanderbilt University and Thomas Jefferson University, her commitment to her students and her peers is really what I admire the most. She genuinely cares about getting the most out of the people she mentors, students and young professors alike.
Tell us your personal story in science + research. How did your path begin and how did it lead to where you are today?
Science has always been my outlet. I grew up in Flatbush Brooklyn, which presented a unique set of distractions during my childhood. Science kept me interested, and it kept me focused. More importantly though, I had some great teachers that were willing to challenge me throughout the years. Some of my oldest friends recall me saying that I always wanted to be scientist, even though as I child I had no idea what that really meant. Fast forward a decade, I’m getting ready to graduate high school and my chemistry teacher suggested I consider being a Pharmacist. After graduating high school, I went to technical school to be a pharmacy tech, I thought it would be a great way to get some exposure in the field. I worked as a pharmacy technician while taking the classes I needed to apply pharmacy school. Fast forward 2 years, and I realized I really wanted to be on the drug discovery side of things and not on the clinical side. So I changed my major to molecular and cellular biology, took almost every biomedical science class my university had to offer to see where my interest was.
The turning point for me was really during my first undergraduate research opportunity in a genetics lab. That was really the spark to pursue research. The next step was to find out what I wanted to research. I spent the next 2 years submerged in undergraduate research. I found myself in a microbiology lab looking at novel antibiotics from soil bacteria. That was a great project for me, strong in chemistry and genetics. I wanted to gain more experience with human disease, so the summer before my final semester I did an internship at the University of Miami Diabetes Research Institute. It was there that really sealed my deal to pursue biomedical science. It also showed we were my real research interest lie. Type I diabetes is a complex multifactorial disease, involving the immune system, genetics, cell biology, and biochemistry. It was a great disease to fall in love with, from the intellectual perspective at least. I worked on natural killer cell biology in the context of tyep1 diabetes, as well as improving a transplant model for type1 diabetes for patients that are not well controlled using exogenous insulin. That internship went so well that I worked there after the internship and for the following year leading up to Grad School.
The last year and a half that I started doing research and taking high level science classes in undergrad really brought the best out of me. I won some academic awards, including the Florida ACE student of the year award, got my research funded by the University via an internal grant. All that success speaks to being passionate about something and the limitations of your abilities seem to just disappear. The next step for me was picking a graduate school that I really liked and felt would be the best environment for me to grow in. Thomas Jefferson was that place for me, even though I got accepted to a few places, my interview there really stood out to me. Pharmacology will always have a place in my heart, but currently I’m more focused on chromatin architecture and gene regulation in the context of cancer and cellular differentiation. I hope to make huge impacts in these fields going forward.
What do you like most about communicating science?
Inspiration- it’s the number one kickback from science communication. Creating content that flips that switch of interest in someone’s head when reading an article or watching a video is a great feeling. To me that’s what it’s really all about, getting people to enjoy, appreciate and understand science, so that we are all more informed about the physical world.
What is your best advice for promoting diversity in STEM?
Get children involved early! I’m the only black male in this year’s entire PhD class. There’s only 20 of us, I can tell you for sure it’s not because my school is biased in any way. It wasn’t very diverse at my interview either even though the staff is pretty diverse. I think the real key to generating diversity in STEM at the professional level, is to get students involved in STEM at the K-12 stage so that they are better prepared for STEM majors in college. I think it is also important to have diverse faces in science communication to appeal to the diversity that is out there.
What is one piece of advice you would give someone considering science research?
For anyone considering science research I would say having a firm grasp of the basics is uber important. Whether it be cancer or infectious disease, the fundamentals of chemistry, biology and physics will help your thought process. Have a strong foundation and the unknowns of research will seem less grueling.