A Day in the Life of a PhD Student Amidst the Pandemic
A Special Birth Defects Insights Blog Series
By Bevin Blake, PhD, Society for Birth Defects Research and Prevention Member Since 2018
Scientists everywhere are adapting to the “new normal” in the age of COVID-19 as the world around us demands rapid answers to complex questions. The current situation has shone light on the importance of exposure-related research and has revealed the critical need for crosstalk between public health experts, the medical community, laboratory-based research scientists, and the general public. Several of the important questions to arise during this pandemic focused on the dangers of viral infection to pregnant women and their developing offspring. The importance of exposure science in the context of pregnancy and birth defects research has been underscored by the COVID-19 crisis. Whether the exposure is viral, bacterial, psycho-social, nutritional, or environmental, we know that understanding the risks during pregnancy to the mother and developing offspring is paramount to protecting human health.
My research aimed to use translational tools (e.g. a combination of different scientific approaches) to improve our understanding of the human health effects due to environmental exposures. I am particularly interested in the relationship between early life exposures and chronic adult diseases. I recently earned my PhD in Toxicology and Environmental Medicine from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. I completed my dissertation research as an Intramural Research Training Award (IRTA) predoctoral fellow at the National Institute of Environmental Health Science (NIEHS) in the National Toxicology Program (NTP). During my time as a graduate student and trainee, I did a lot! The majority of my time was spent designing and conducting experiments, analyzing the data, and interpreting the results.
As a graduate student, a typical day for me was generally divided between doing work at the bench (e.g. tissue culture experiments or prepping samples for subsequent biomolecular or chemical analyses), data analytics (e.g. importing data into R, writing code, and performing statistical analyses), science writing (e.g. working on manuscripts or science communication pieces), and meetings (e.g. with my PhD advisor to discuss progress or troubleshooting, my lab to share our data, or other research groups with which I am involved). Towards the end of my PhD, there was far less lab work and far more writing and other computer-based work, but at earlier stages of the journey the scales were tipped heavily in favor of lab work. While I enjoyed the challenges and hands-on nature of wet lab work, I discovered that I really love the challenge of working through complex datasets and analyzing/interpreting the findings.
My interest in toxicology was first piqued during the fall semester of my junior year in college at the University of Mount Union, a small liberal arts college in Ohio. I was dual-majoring in biology and psychology with a general plan to go to graduate school and study something at the intersection of the two, like behavioral neuroscience. My track teammate/roommate at the time was an environmental science major and mentioned she planned to take an elective course called Ecotoxicology. I still needed another biology elective, so I thought it might be fun to take the class with her. I was completely blindsided by my fascination with the relationship between the health of organisms and the environment around them.
When I applied to graduate school for my master’s degree program, I joined Dr. Krista McCoy’s lab at East Carolina University in 2013, where I had the chance to design a very cool project that looked at behavioral programming of rat offspring prenatally over-exposed to endogenous hormones. This proof-of-concept study provided a foundation upon which to build subsequent in utero neuroendocrine disruption studies, and it was right up my alley since it combined aspects of both psychology and biology. As I learned more about the human health consequences of early life exposures, I became interested in the Barker hypothesis. I then applied for PhD programs in toxicology and began my doctoral training at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2015. In 2016, I joined the lab of Dr. Suzanne Fenton, a long-time BDRP member who shares a passion for protecting human health through understanding the consequences of developmental exposures.
I enjoyed my experience as a graduate student because it allowed me to think both critically and creatively, to hone my skills as a scientist, to connect with numerous research interest groups and societies, to delve deeply into topics of interest, and learn from others. Traveling to and presenting at scientific meetings was another part of the graduate student experience that I truly appreciated. Something I learned about myself through presenting at meetings is that I have a real passion for communicating science! Whether it’s in writing or aloud, conveying scientific concepts and findings to a diverse array of audiences is so rewarding, and there are ample opportunities to do so as a graduate student.
As a graduate student, I uniquely benefitted from both academic and government trainee settings — UNC Chapel Hill provided me with top-notch coursework and a rigorous toxicology doctoral program while the NTP and NIEHS provided me with access to state-of-the-art core facilities and countless collaborations with experts in diverse fields to support my research. I truly feel immensely privileged to have benefitted from such incredible resources.
Looking ahead, I am very interested in pursuing a career related to environmental health at the intersection of public health, primary research, and policy. Although this next step has yet to be determined [insert shameless self-plug about being on the job market here], I am confident that my involvement in the Society for Birth Defects Research and Prevention (BDRP) will help me get my foot in the door, whether through networking opportunities or professional development. I feel that I have already benefitted from being part of BDRP; I have been granted travel awards to present my doctoral research at the 2018 and 2019 annual meetings and have participated in the Awards Committee and the Communication Coordination Committee, which have been excellent experiences as a trainee!
If you want to attend graduate school (either a master’s degree program or a doctoral program) and do birth defects research, my advice would be to take the initiative with contacting programs, labs, and individual researchers of interest to you. Some might not respond, but establishing an early line of communication will help with name recognition when the graduate school programs are inundated with piles of applications. If the person, school, or lab is local, see if you can schedule a casual meet-and-greet (via Zoom or another video chat platform until in-person meetings are safe)! Anything that you can do to set yourself apart and make a lasting positive impression will go a lot further than lines on a resume. That being said, make sure your application materials have undergone multiple rounds of editing and refining by people other than yourself — it’s a painful and iterative process, but inevitably improves the end product.
Between my master’s and PhD work, I was in graduate school for 7 consecutive years, which was a LOT. While there have been plenty of ups and downs, this was the right path for me. Graduate school can be extremely intimidating, but a strong support network (both professional and personal) and an unrelenting passion for research and discovery are key to sustaining motivation and perseverance!
While the ongoing pandemic has impacted the lives of many, one silver lining is that it has highlighted the importance of research focused on the health and safety of pregnant women and their babies. I’m proud to be a member of this research community, and thankful for the ways in which BDRP has supported our community of medical professionals, public health experts, and scientists!
More about the Author
Bevin Blake recently earned her PhD in Toxicology and Environmental Medicine at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, conducting her research with Dr. Suzanne Fenton at the National Toxicology Program. Bevin’s doctoral research focused on the health effects caused by exposure to per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), using translational science to focus specifically on in utero exposure and the placenta as a target. Bevin is passionate about her research and has won 16 different awards during her time as a PhD student, including the UNC Impact Award, which recognizes graduate student research directly contributing to the educational, economic, physical, social or cultural well-being of North Carolina citizens. In her free time, Bevin is a proud dog mom who loves to spend time outdoors and competes for a local elite triathlon team. Follow her research and professional endeavors on Twitter: @bevthescientist
More about the Society for Birth Defects Research and Prevention (BDRP)
To understand and prevent birth defects and disorders of developmental and reproductive origin, BDRP promotes multi-disciplinary research and exchange of ideas; communicates information to health professionals, decision-makers, and the public; and provides education and training.
Scientists interested in or already involved in research related to topics mentioned in this blog are encouraged to join BDRP and attend the being held virtually this year in June. BDRP is the premier source for cutting-edge research and authoritative information related to birth defects and developmentally mediated disorders. Our members include those specializing in cell and molecular biology, developmental biology and toxicology, reproduction and endocrinology, epidemiology, nutritional biochemistry, and genetics, as well as the clinical disciplines of prenatal medicine, pediatrics, obstetrics, neonatology, medical genetics, and teratogen risk counseling. In addition, BDRP publishes the scientific journal, Birth Defects Research. Learn more at http://www.birthdefectsresearch.org. Find BDRP on LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.