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Engineering  |  Grand Challenges Scholars Program

Frea Mehta is a chemical engineering major in the Barrett Honors College who stays actively involved in the Fulton community. She is currently a FURI researcher and is also a Grand Challenge Scholars student. Despite her full plate, Frea made time to travel to the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) all the way in Heidelberg, Germany. At EMBL, Frea participated in a traineeship under Dr. Matthia Karreman, a post-doctoral fellow at the German lab. After returning from this once-in-a-lifetime trip, Frea shared some of the details of her experience.

In layman terms, what was the conference about?

I completed a traineeship at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) in Heidelberg, Germany in the lab of Dr. Yannick Schwab, whose group does 3-dimensional correlated light and electron microscopy. Electron microscopy offers angstrom-level resolution, but is labor-intensive to perform and requires either the ability to search through large samples for regions of interest or precise knowledge of their location. Light microscopy, on the other hand, allows for rapid localization of regions of interest within a sample at the expense of resolution. Light microscopy provides a map for researchers to find important events; electron microscopy allows them to capture and study these events at the cellular and subcellular level. Correlating these two modalities in 3-D facilitates new discoveries by combining the best of both worlds.

What motivated you to travel to EMBL?

I was interested in EMBL for its amazing basic research output and its international diversity. I wanted to explore more fields of molecular biological research before entering my final year at ASU and EMBL seemed like the perfect place to do so with its plentiful offerings of seminars, courses, and scientists from varying backgrounds. The lab to which I applied fascinated me because they were working to elucidate the physical mechanisms of complex biological phenomena. I liked that they were shedding light on “black box” events such as tumor metastasis that were too transient and localized to be previously observed by any other means.

Tell us about some of the courses you took!

I attended a number of seminars that were part of a course at EMBL called Advanced Fluorescence Imaging Techniques in which speakers presented cutting-edge applications of fluorescent light microscopy. A major topic in light microscopy at the moment is super-resolution microscopy, a method that offers resolution below the diffraction limit of light. However, devices that can perform super-resolution methods are not available at most institutions due to cost. One of the presentations in this course covered an image analysis-based approach to obtain super-resolution images using raw data from devices that most researchers would have readily available, such as confocal microscopes. With this tool, super-resolution fluorescent images could be generated right here at ASU without having to purchase a new microscope. I thought this was a really cool lesson in equal access to resources for scientists.

Through EMBL I was able to attend a week-long workshop hosted by the developers of a piece of software called Ilastik. Ilastik is an image segmentation and analysis tool that is essentially used to recognize discrete objects from images in 2-D or 3-D. The workshop was interesting especially because the developers took a very hands-on approach to their software. They helped us apply Ilastik to our own datasets and if we encountered a bug in the program, they would patch it and release a new version of the software the next day. It was nice to work so closely with them and to see how large-scale projects such as software development evolve.

What do you think was the best part of your experience?

The best part of my experience was definitely the people I was fortunate enough to meet during my time at EMBL. I was always interacting with people whose backgrounds differed dramatically from my own, so everyone brought their own distinct attitudes to our communication. The collaborative spirit is alive there, and the small institution has a homey feeling despite its high-powered personnel and prolific research output. I felt that I was always learning something in casual conversations, whether it be science, crude jokes, climbing tips, or tidbits of a coworker’s culture. I worked in an amazing team of warm, friendly, wildly intelligent people who really provided a model for what I would like to see in future colleagues. I couldn’t imagine a better environment in which to learn and work. The cafeteria’s food was also unbelievably good.

Has your involvement with EMBL influenced your research plans?

One of my goals going into this experience was to expand my horizons on what is available in the field of molecular biology and bioengineering. Immersion in EMBL’s highly collaborative, interdisciplinary environment for two months allowed me to achieve this goal. I think my upcoming graduate school applications and decisions will be far more informed as a result. This experience also made me much more comfortable with the possibility of completing graduate school, working, or living abroad–options that I think are often downplayed in conversations about post-graduation.

What did you wish you knew prior to traveling to EMBL?

I wish I had a better understanding of big data management before embarking on my projects at EMBL. Working with large datasets and computers capable of handling them is rapidly becoming a mandatory part of biological imaging and I wish I had a stronger background in these computing skills.

Any suggestions for other students regarding conferences? 

Be bold in the experiences you seek. I never thought I would be lucky enough to get this opportunity in the first place and I certainly did not expect ASU to help me cover the costs. Many students, myself included, put mental hurdles in the way of achieving things they want. We all have heard and said “I couldn’t get in to that….” or “Well I could never afford that” in conversations regarding amazing opportunities. In reality, we are often well-qualified for experiences and well-supported by our community, even if we do not believe this ourselves. Be bold and take steps to achieve what you want; even when you doubt your plans will come to fruition, have confidence in yourself that they will.