Research, Medical School, Motherhood and More: Jennifer Thalappillil’s Journey

This week’s post features Jennifer Thalappillil. Jennifer is an award winning scientist and PhD candidate at Stony Brook University’s Department of Pharmacological Sciences. She has won an F31 NIH Fellowship and Stony Brook’s SUNY GREAT award. She was also chosen to present her work at the Annual Meeting for the American Association For Cancer Research (AACR) as well as at Regeneron’s Science to Medicine (STM) Forum. Jennifer currently conducts research under the mentorship of Dr. David Tuveson at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. 

Jennifer’s journey in scientific research began in undergrad, where she co-authored a paper titled: “Biophysical Properties of Single-Stranded vs Double-Stranded DNA Molecules”. From there, she has published papers on cervical fibroblasts as well as on lung cancer. 

Her journey in graduate level science actually began with a foray into medical school. Before joining the PhD program in Pharmacology at Stony Brook University, Jennifer attended medical school at Albany Medical College for two years. Deciding that research was the path she wished to pursue, Jennifer made the decision to leave Albany Medical College and pursue a career in scientific research instead, focusing on exploring the science that drives medical practice forward. Jennifer also added “parenthood” to her list of accolades, as she recently welcomed a baby into her life while working on her dissertation research. 

Jennifer sat down with us and spoke about her journey thus far in both science and parenthood. She also shared some beneficial advice for people who can relate to her journey. Read on to learn more about Jennifer!

What’s your educational background?

I have a BS in Biochemistry from Stony Brook University, an MS in Biomedical Sciences from Tufts University School of Medicine. I was enrolled in medical school at Albany Medical College for 2 years before transitioning to research. 

How did you end up pursuing a PhD? Is it something you always wanted to do? What was your journey like?

I always thought medicine was the path for me: my mom and many of my family members are physicians and they always seemed to enjoy their jobs. I was also very curious-minded and loved science from a young age, so this track made sense to me. However, once actually starting medical school, I quickly formed a different opinion. Medicine is somewhat rigid, which makes sense considering the fact that you are working with the well-being of human patients! However, I always found myself asking “why?” and “how?” about certain diseases and their etiologies. To me, this indicated that medicine was not the correct path for me. 

Tell me about your current research. Why is your research important? 

My research focuses on pancreatic cancer; specifically, the non-cancer cells within pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma tumors. 

The non-cancer cells in pancreatic tumors (called stromal cells) make up the bulk of the tumor mass. In fact, cancer cells only comprise 10-20% of all cells within pancreatic tumors. Some of these cell types, such as cancer-associated fibroblasts (CAFs) and tumor-associated macrophages (TAMs), have been shown to promote tumor aggressiveness and resistance to therapy. Understanding how these cells communicate with cancer cells and with each other is important to determine whether there are potential vulnerabilities that can be exploited for therapeutic gain. 

What excites you about your work?

My lab is on the forefront of the work being done in the tumor microenvironment (TME) space. Any stromal cell-targeting strategies we develop could potentially have real-world application in the clinic. 

What does your workspace look like?

My space is an absolute mess! I’d call it organized chaos but that would be generous. The only thing even slightly organized are my histology slide boxes above my bench.

How do you stay motivated and productive?

Being excited about the science is a huge motivator. Wanting to find out the result of my experiments and to think about how to proceed requires planning and organization, which, based on my bench, you wouldn’t think I’m capable of, but my calendar (which is handwritten, I’m old-school) keeps me on track. 

How do you balance the demands of being a mom to a little one with the demands of being a scientist? 

I’m not gonna lie, being a parent has definitely kicked up the difficulty level on my PhD a few notches. But it has also forced me to prioritize my time and efforts, which, overall, I think has benefited me greatly. 

What advice would you give to scientists who are also contemplating parenthood? 

Be assertive with your time and efforts, and prioritize your goals. Take things as they come, one step at a time. I plan things by the week and only extend my agenda a few weeks ahead in case I have a long-term experiment. Otherwise, as parenthood has taught me, the best-laid plans are often foiled. 

What are a few major lessons you’ve learned in your experience as a PhD student so far?

Sometimes you don’t know unless you ask. So ask, whether it may be what you think is a “stupid question” (it rarely is), whether it’s about an opportunity, experiment, collaboration, whatever it may be. The worst response you can get is “no”, otherwise there’s nothing to lose. 

What do you like to do when you’re not at the bench? 

I enjoy spending time with my husband and son. My son is almost a year old now, and it has been an amazing experience seeing him grow. Besides that, I’ve always loved reading and, although it’s been a while since I practiced, martial arts. 

What do you hope life after completing your PhD looks like? 

I will always love science and hope to contribute to the field in whatever form that may be. My PhD has given me a newfound appreciation for scientific writing; data can speak for itself, but how you convey the message about your data can tell the story in a way that transcends the data alone. 

What is a meaningful piece of advice that you’ve received?

Sometimes it’s okay to say no. If you have a list of priorities you need to accomplish and someone tries to add to your plate, it’s okay to decline if it’s not essential to your own goals, especially if your time in the lab is limited by daycare hours!

How do you find yourself connecting with science most? 

I’ve always loved crafting and absorbing stories, in all their forms. Whether it be through books, science, video games, conversations, or anything else, stories are how we as a society convey information to others. Storytelling is an art that I appreciate, especially in science. I feel this is often underappreciated as such arts have always been considered “soft sciences”, but grants, manuscripts, progress reports, seminars, conferences, and posters are all different mediums to convey your scientific story. So to my fellow scientists: craft your scientific story and make it  your own!

If you’d like to keep up with Jennifer’s journey, connect with her on Twitter @JThalappillil

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