what it is to be a scientist

Sarah Peters, Ph.D.'14, Recipient of the Jagadish Garg Award

When the late Professor Garg established an award, he and his family included three criteria for selection: academic excellence, strength of character, and high future aspirations. Of course, a great many students demonstrate these qualities in abundance, including Sarah Peters, Ph.D. '14, of the Department of Biological SciencesDean Edelgard Wulfert, on the recommendation of a panel of faculty at the distinguished rank, selected Ms. Peters from among the many qualified nominees to receive the 2014 Jagadish Garg Doctoral Award in the College of Arts and Sciences.

  

Ms. Peters will receive her doctorate in biology in May 2014, but she has faced many hurdles along the way. “I was in my second year of a PhD program in atmospheric science when I realized I had made a mistake in my career trajectory,” writes Ms. Peters. Rather than continue on to a respectable, but not altogether fulfilling, career, Ms. Peters paused her studies after defending her M.S. thesis in atmospheric sciences.

After some time spent exploring her options and working a number of different jobs, a friend of Ms. Peters offered her an opportunity to deploy her formidable analytical skills reviewing recent literature on…stem cells. Though the topic intrigued Ms. Peters, it was not one that is in the wheelhouse of most atmospheric scientists. Undaunted, Ms. Peters began to inquire at local laboratories about volunteer and entry-level work in which she could develop her subject knowledge and research experience. Each replied that such openings were only available to biology doctoral students.

Enter biologist Melinda Larsen who was at that time a brand new assistant professor at UAlbany in the midst of setting up her research program and lab. Serendipitously, Ms. Peters contacted Dr. Larsen as part of her self-guided stem cell educational program and that was when Dr. Larsen noticed something special in Ms. Peters - “that she had what it takes” to be successful as a volunteer in the fledgling Larsen Lab. As Dr. Larsen writes, it was a leap of faith for both of them, “I don’t know which of us was more foolhardy, me for taking an aspiring biologist under my wing that had high aspirations but had never studied biology or Sarah for starting to work with me, a brand new professor with no equipment, no track record, and who knew little about stem cells.”

Despite the steep learning curve, Ms. Peters built her laboratory skills enough first to be hired as a lab technician within six months and then a year later, in January 2008, accepted into the Ph.D. program in biology with a teaching assistantship. As one might imagine, the transition from atmospheric to biological sciences was not an easy one especially at the doctoral level. The first semester of coursework proved challenging for Ms. Peters, but she found support among the faculty and advanced graduate students in her department. “Sarah eventually flourished in our graduate program,” Dr. Larsen states, “because of her strong work ethic and her ability to persevere in the face of adversity.”

Ms. Peters’ intractable perseverance can also be found in her approach to her Ph.D. thesis, which is in the area of extracellular stiffness in organ formation and regeneration. This work stretches beyond Dr. Larsen’s expertise into fields such as materials science and tissue engineering. At one point in her study, she hit a seemingly insurmountable obstacle in her research. Rather than give-up, Ms. Peters traveled to a major national conference of tissue engineers to consult with experts about her problem. She returned to the Larsen Lab armed with potential solutions and soon after she had broken through her obstacle.

In addition to her development as a researcher, Ms. Peters has spent considerable time honing her skills as an instructor. She has given engaging guest lectures in Dr. Larsen's cell biology course and mentored three undergraduates, one of whom went on to receive her department's highest honor in undergraduate research.

After graduation, Ms.- now Dr.- Peters will accept a position in the field of regenerative medicine at either the University of Alabama, Birmingham. She will apply her knowledge in a slightly different field - skeletal disease and development, pursuing medically relevant steps toward tissue engineering artificial cartilage. Dr. Peters intends to pursue this new field of research with vigor and conviction. Someday, she may transition to a leadership position in a lab. When she does, Dr. Peters will no doubt draw from her experience at UAlbany. "I have watched my advisor transition from an inspired researcher opening a new lab into an inspiring leader with multiple collaborations and intricate projects" Dr. Peters states. Indeed, in the few short years since joining the University, Dr. Larsen, now an associate professor, has built a noteworthy research portfolio and leads an exceptional team of faculty, postdoctoral fellows, and students in her lab.

Likewise, the profound changes in Dr. Peters have not gone unnoticed by Professor Larsen. "She now has truly learned to think like a biologist and anticipate the next interesting scientific question," Dr. Larsen states, "She fully understands what it is to be a scientist."