VAI Voice

The Official Blog of Van Andel Institute
5 Oct 2016

Graduate student spotlight: Emily Machiela

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Emily Machiela

Van Andel Institute Graduate School is home to exceptional students from across the U.S. One of those students is
Emily Machiela. Currently in her fourth-year, Emily is working on her thesis “The interplay between ROS signaling and mitochondrial morphology in aging and neurodegenerative disease” under the guidance of her faculty mentor Dr. Jeremy Van Raamsdonk. Learn more about Emily by reading the Q&A below and learn more about the Graduate School by visiting


How would you describe your area of study to your grandmother?
I study Huntington’s disease, a genetic disease that causes your brain to slowly die. Currently, there is no treatment to slow the progression of disease. In particular, I study something called the mitochondria, an organelle in cells that produce energy for the cells to survive. In order for brain cells to survive, they need lots of energy. In diseases such as Huntington’s disease, we find that these mitochondrial energy factories are not very efficient; they produce too much pollution and not enough energy. I am looking for ways to increase the efficiency of these energy factories to see if it helps the brain cells live longer and healthier.

What is your primary motivation for persevering through graduate school?
My motivation is definitely two-fold. One, I simply love science. I love the creativity of the scientific process and I am constantly amazed by what I can see inside living cells; it’s fascinating!  The second, and more long-term goal, is to be a part of developing new treatments for Huntington’s disease. This disease is devastating, and watching people I know battle this disease gives me incredible motivation to persevere through graduate school and beyond in pursuit of developing treatments for this disease and providing hope for those that suffer from it.

What do you want to do with your degree?
I would like to continue to pursue science in the lab, but I am also passionate about teaching, patient advocacy, and helping people better understand this disease and the needs of the field.

Did you take time off before starting your Ph.D. degree or come directly from an undergraduate or master’s degree program?
I came directly from undergrad, but I took time off between high school and college to travel. I lived in Zambia for a while and worked with USAID.

How has your previous coursework contributed to your breadth of knowledge?
I actually was a biomedical science and exercise physiology major in undergrad, so I come from a clinical background. I thought that having only clinical research experience would be detrimental for me when starting a basic cell and molecular science Ph.D., but it has actually been the opposite. When studying molecular science, you have to be narrowly focused, but my clinical background helps me to put the narrowly focused pathways I study into whole-body context when thinking about how results may eventually translate into new treatments for disease.

Do you think there is any value in social networking with other graduate students in non-related fields?
Absolutely! There is so much I don’t know and I have learned so much from people outside my field. One example specifically being that I generate a lot of data in the lab and talking to people that work on data engineering is incredibly valuable. It is also good to get out of your own field every once in a while and just listen to what other people are doing and how people in other fields think. This is often where the best ideas come from and it fosters collaborative relationships that can last a long time.

How do you think earning an advanced degree will change your role in society?
I haven’t ever really thought about having an advanced degree. I am just trying to soak up as much as I can while I am here. I guess in society at large, being a scientist enables me to better educate the general public on scientific and health-related issues that are not often communicated accurately in populous media.

Did your past experiences in life or education help prepare you for graduate school or did you have to develop different strategies to succeed?
Both. Throughout undergrad, I worked, coached and took a full-time class load. I definitely know how to manage a busy schedule and be disciplined in my time management. What I couldn’t anticipate, however, was learning how to manage the “endlessness” feeling of graduate school. For me, the toughest part of graduate school is that there is no checklist of things you need to do every day. It all depends on where the science leads you. So I have definitely had to develop strategies to keep myself focused and self-directed day-to-day in the lab.

What is your favorite stress-reduction technique?
Running, biking swimming and hiking…really anything that involves being outside.

What accomplishment (academic or other) are you most proud of?
Getting published is probably one of my biggest achievements. Non-academic, I’ve completed two full Ironman triathlons. I’m proud of those finishes.

Are you involved in other community activities and if so, how have they shaped your graduate experience?
I am actively involved in education programs at Van Andel Education Institute. I also guest teach for undergrad and high school classes. Teaching science to kids is one of my favorite things, because they often come up with the best questions. They aren’t afraid to ask questions like adults often are, and it’s a lot fun.

Has your perception of this Ph.D. program changed since you began the program?
Yes, but I think my view of the scientific process in general has changed. I’ve always operated under the assumption that if I work hard enough, I will succeed. This is definitely true in science, but I can’t just pick a direction and go with it. I have to follow the science and let science chart my path, so to speak. So it’s more a dedication to the process rather than to getting a certain result, which is why you really have to love science to stay dedicated to it.

If you were asked to put something in a time capsule for each year you have been in the program and this capsule would not be opened for 25 years, what would you contribute?
My computer, partially because there are days I’d like to bury it.

If you hadn’t been admitted to graduate school, what do you think you would be doing right now?
Medical school was my original plan.