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Regeneron STS finalists meet pioneering scientists at Janelia Research Campus

By Kevin Easterly

Regeneron STS finalists with Alumni Dinner keynote speaker, Ron Vale. Courtesy of Chris Ayers Photography

For Regeneron Science Talent Search finalists, Finals Week in Washington, D.C. is jampacked with activities. Beyond the competition and their interviews with judges, building community with one another and gracing the stage at the Awards Gala, finalists also have many opportunities to meet with Society alumni and leaders across scientific fields.

A highlight for this year’s class was meeting Ronald Vale (STS 1976), Vice President of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and Executive Director of its Janelia Research Campus, as well as founder of numerous companies and social enterprises including Cytokinetics, Myeloid Therapeutics and iBiology. As the keynote speaker at this year’s Alumni Dinner, Ron shared the story of his career and led an engaging discussion with the finalists in which they considered various approaches to scientific questions. Here are some of the key insights and pieces of advice Ron shared with the group:

On the “secret sauce,” as Ron called it, of science: “The important thing is your drive, your own inspiration to find things that you’re really interested in. The first key to doing good science is identifying a good question. That is always a challenge, no matter what stage of your career you’re in, and it’s really one of the fun parts about doing science.”

On building relationships: “Mentors really matter. You probably realize that already, but it is very important as you go on your own individual journey to find people that you feel are role models, people that believe in you and people that you can relate to.”

On persistence: “You can get great results every time you take an exam, but you won’t get great results every time you do science. That’s just part of the proposition. When things don’t work, don’t be discouraged—sometimes the reason things don’t work is that nature is telling you that your initial idea was somehow incorrect. And that’s an opportunity to explore the right answer.”

A few days after hearing from Ron Vale , the finalists had a unique opportunity to visit the Janelia Research Campus in scenic Ashburn, Virginia, where they got a closer look at the work of Ron and his colleagues. The finalists met a group of scientists who are exploring a wide range of research questions, from the fields of neuroscience to microscopy, to biochemistry and beyond. Along with some in-depth discussions of cutting-edge research, one of the day’s most poignant refrains was the unique wayin which Janelians (the self-referential term of campus community members) approach their work.

With the mantra of “Small Labs, Big Science,” Janelia is comprised of 42 individual labs, each consisting of two to six scientists exploring long-term research questions. But while individual labs are small, the community is close-knit and cross-collaboration between research groups is at the core of everything Janelians do. United by a shared commitment to solving biology’s most important problems, researchers embrace what they call “productive collisions” as they support one another’s research across disciplines.

Among the scientists the finalists met during their visit were:

Nelson Spruston, Chief of Janelia Scientific Operations and Programs. Dr. Spruston is a neuroscientist whose lab works to better understand the hippocampus, researching properties including gene expression and the synaptic connections of the brain. He spoke with the finalists about how his team quantitatively mapped brain activity of mice as they learned various patterns over time.

Luke Lavis, Senior Group Leader and Head of Molecular Tools and Imaging. Dr. Lavis describes his team as “one-half tool builders and one-half biologists.” Together, they work at the interface of chemistry and biology, assembling small molecule fluorescent dyes that facilitate sophisticated biological studies. Dr. Lavis walked the finalists through the interesting history of these fluorophores, and the chemistry behind their work to create molecules useful in medical and scientific imaging.

Courtney “CJ” Johnson, Associate, Shroff Lab. Dr. Johnson gave a fascinating introduction to the field of microscopy and adaptive optics—and offered finalists a glimpse into her work of building microscopes that enable us to see things that have never been imaged.

Hiroshi Shiozaki, Research Scientist, Stern Lab. Dr. Shiozaki and his colleagues study how neural differences underlie species-specific behaviors. In his discussion with finalists, he gave an overview of his research and how his team designed an experiment to pinpoint the genetic and neural factors in mating rituals between different species of flies.

Following their meetings with the researchers, the finalists toured the campus, viewing different labs and getting a clearer view of the many different settings in which Janelia’s scientists perform their research. Here are some photos of the finalists touring the campus:

To learn more about these inspiring students, visit the Virtual Public Exhibition of Projects site or head to the Society for Science YouTube page to watch the Regeneron Science Talent Search 2023 Awards Ceremony.

Kevin Easterly