Want to work at Sanford Research? Here is some advice

NIH researchers look back at their time as PhD students

Two Ph.D. student researchers in lab coats point at a computer screen in the lab.

Before launching her career at the National Institutes of Health, Christina Amatya was a graduate researcher at Sanford Research.

Amatya works at the NIH in the surgery branch of the National Cancer Institute.

Reflecting on her time at Sanford, she said, “You are a part of a small group, so you get to be involved in different projects. That was a good opportunity for me to be exposed and be trained on many things, which helped me to get into my current career.”

Birendra KC was a graduate researcher in the Roux Lab before becoming a postdoctoral fellow at the National Cancer Institute where he is now.

“Building a strong foundation is always the most important part to be able to move forward in life,” Birendra said. “Amazing research experience at Sanford prepared me well for this step.  Extensive training and proper guidance from my mentor and the members of the committee was really helpful in shaping me and making me confident in what I am doing right now.”

From Nepal to South Dakota

Amatya wanted to study biomedical science in Nepal after completing high school. Since there were only a few biomedical science programs offered in her home country, she searched for undergraduate study abroad options in the United States. She eventually landed on St. Cloud State University in St. Cloud, Minnesota.

Sanford Research was in Minnesota recruiting students to join its graduate program at the University of South Dakota. After applying for the program and sending numerous emails back and forth, Amatya ended up in the Savinov Lab.

Since she was interested in studying immunology, the study of immune systems, Amatya believed the Savinov Lab would be the best fit for her. This lab focuses on autoimmune diseases, most notably type 1 diabetes. She was a graduate researcher in this Sanford Research lab for five years.

Collaboration is key

There are a number of aspects about Sanford Research that stand out to Amatya. First, she mentioned the small lab sizes.

“Although it is small, it is growing. Sanford Research already had and is continuing to recruit many research experts from all around the country, bringing exciting researchers to the area. I was able to learn about different areas of medical and life sciences not only from my own, but other labs, too,” she said.

“It is very collaborative. When you work in a small cohort, you get to learn many techniques and how to do more by yourself. You have opportunities to do more things because you are supported by your PI (principal investigator), lab members, a great team of scientists and top-notch equipment available at Sanford Research and its affiliated universities including the University of South Dakota.”

Amatya also noted the collaborative environment of Sanford Research.

“It is so open,” she said. “You can walk into another lab and talk about your research or collaboration. You can ask anything to anyone.”

By conversing with other researchers, you get to learn a new perspective — something that’s important when you want to grow in your career, she said.

Thanks to her time at Sanford Research, she has been able to apply what she learned to what she does today. Amatya is currently conducting cancer immunotherapy research and mostly focuses on engineering of immune cells which can be targeted to eliminate malignant cancer cells.

“Some of the techniques and general science that are done in my current lab also matched with what I did in my graduate school, so I think that really helped me a lot,” she said.

Advice to future students

Students may know where their research niche is, but Amatya urges future students to explore other opportunities.

“As a graduate student, you always have to be open,” she said. “You have to move, especially being in science where it is so diverse and dynamic. I learned a lot as a graduate student, but to diversify my knowledge, I had to go somewhere else.”

This is how she ended up at the National Cancer Institute in Maryland.

As for her Sanford Research experience, Amatya said, “It will be helpful for anyone to come to Sanford to gain expertise in an area of their interest, as well as diversify their scientific knowledge because of the growing nature Sanford has right now.”

Interest ignited

Originally from Nepal, Birendra attended St. Cloud State University in Minnesota before coming to Sanford Research. During his senior year of undergraduate studies in biology, he saw an opening in one of the labs in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. It seemed like the right fit because he wanted hands-on experience in a research lab before working toward a Ph.D.

“The name caught my eye,” he said. “I came in ready for a job interview for lab technician but that changed during my interview with a few faculty at Sanford.”

Because of this, he ultimately decided to join Sanford’s Ph.D. program at the University of South Dakota to start his research career.

Birendra worked in the Roux Lab for almost six years. There, he studied the structure and function of the nuclear envelope. The nuclear envelope is a highly ordered double membrane that separates the nucleus, the organelle that contains genetic material, from the cytoplasm in eukaryotic cells.

Specifically, Birendra was interested in the nuclear envelope proteins because the mutations in the genes encoding for the nuclear envelope proteins are responsible for numerous rare diseases. To identify novel proteins of the nuclear envelope and their protein-protein associations, Birendra used the BioID method.

Dr. Kyle Roux created BioID to find protein proximity and interactions in living cells. Birendra worked with Dr. Roux to improve BioID as a method to screen for a network of functional protein associations and identify novel nuclear envelope proteins.

“The amount of excitement in being a part of such basic research was something that motivated me,” he said. “Continued motivation was always a part of the work culture at Sanford Research.”

Top-notch research

Birendra had nothing but positive comments about his time at Sanford Research. Besides learning biomedical research techniques in a positive, working environment. There were also plenty of opportunities for career development. Social activities at Sanford research and graduate student retreat were among his indelible memories.

“It was more about the passion that was ignited by my experience there,” he said. “My colleagues and other people that I communicated with were really friendly. Not just my committee members but other principal investigators were also helpful, supportive and provided me with suggestions/comments on my work. Sanford Research is definitely a workplace that will fill you with pride and excitement for the work you do!”

When asked about giving advice to future students, Birendra said, “the research at Sanford Research is top-notch. The faculty, work culture, and the labs are all set to ensure constant support and career growth.

“Make sure to get involved in more than one project at a time, which is kind of the norm now, so that you can have at least one project to hold onto even if the other one doesn’t work. Sanford Research is definitely the right place if you are determined in pursuing research as a career.”

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Posted In Faces of Sanford Health, Research

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