Diabetes Center Laboratory Staff Moving from Bench to Blackboard

Several Diabetes Center research associates have been doing their own version of passing the baton – or pipette – this summer as they prepare to enter prestigious graduate research or medical school programs, propelling them to careers that got much of their start in the laboratories of the Diabetes Center. At any given time there may be a half-dozen or more recent college graduates carrying out experiments under the direction of a senior researcher before leaving to pursue an advanced degree. The laboratory work thus provides both knowledge and training.

“In many ways,” says Jeffrey Bluestone, Ph.D., director of the Diabetes Center and Immune Tolerance Network and the A.W. and Mary Margaret Clausen Distinguished Professor of Medicine, Pathology, Microbiology and Immunology, “they are one of the engines that make laboratory research work, bringing enthusiasm, dedication and fresh perspective. In turn, UCSF provides a setting in which they are able to grow in their jobs.”

Shortly before they made that shift from work to graduate school, senior research associates Noelle Huskey and Christopher Grigsby spoke about the value of their experiences in Diabetes Center research.

They were hired two years ago upon graduating from college. In the lab, they honed skills, evaluated future options, and worked closely with leading scientists. 

Huskey studied mouse genetics and energy pathways in the laboratory of Associate Professor Christian Vaisse, M.D., Ph.D. She will become a graduate student fall in the Biomedical Sciences program of UCSF.

Her offers included one from Harvard University, which she found intriguing for its impressive reputation. She decided on UCSF for its range of faculty, diverse research, and appealing environment. The location is also close to her home town of Santa Cruz, where she says she was involved during high school in such activities as volleyball and soccer.

Grigsby, an Indiana native who moved to Pleasanton at the start of high school, says he had looked into combining his work in the lab with graduate-level biomedical engineering classes. “I go to a lot of journal clubs, seminars, and talks,” he says. “The Diabetes Center is a great place to learn.”

This fall, he’ll move east to Duke University after a few weeks spent hiking and relaxing. He says he feels prepared for classes after enriching his knowledge working for two post-doctoral researchers in the laboratory of Professor in Residence David Gardner, M.D. 

“I’ve come a long way in my technical abilities and thinking skills. Since this has been my daily life for two years, the transition to graduate school will be easier.”

In graduate school, he will learn tissue engineering, technologies that could be applied toward potentially growing replacement organs from stem cells. 

Both students had previous laboratory experience. Grigsby interned for small companies making biomedical devices. In college, Huskey worked for a biochemist who studied Alzheimer’s. 

Both Huskey and Grigsby are products of undergraduate training at the University of California. Grigsby attended UC Berkeley’s School of Engineering, while Huskey majored in biology at UC Santa Barbara’s College of Creative Studies. “I don’t know how I ended up in biology, actually,” she marvels. “I only took one biology class in high school.”

She enjoyed being pushed to do independent work in an unstructured program. “It’s really interesting to be presented with a problem and figure out a way to solve it,” she explains. “It’s kind of like a thought problem.”

Although she contemplated studying medicine or public health, Huskey confirmed through her research activities at the Diabetes Center that she likes doing laboratory bench work. Grigsby is interested in tissue engineering and debating between an academic or industrial career. Other colleagues also honed their career direction through work at the Diabetes Center.

One of their peers found the attraction of medicine irresistable – she will begin medical school next year. Another technician has been accepted into an M.D.- Ph.D. program combining medical education and research. 

Altogether, these future graduate students say, both the hands-on work at the Diabetes Center and time spent with colleagues, post-doctoral fellows and world-class faculty were invaluable in helping shape their new career paths.