Graduate student spotlight: Creating tools to understand the body’s molecular workforce

Throughout the year, we highlight Van Andel Institute Graduate School’s doctoral students. This month, we’re featuring Ariana Kupai, a Ph.D. candidate in the lab of Dr. Scott Rothbart. Ariana studies proteins, which play roles in every aspect of health and disease. Her research has important implications for revealing the body’s most basic innerworkings.  

Q: How would you describe your area of study to someone without a scientific background?

AK: I study proteins, which are molecules that carry out virtually every function in the body. Specifically, I explore how certain proteins may have other functions beyond what we already know. Understanding the function of these fundamental molecules may help us one day to understand and treat diseases.

Q: What is your primary motivation for persevering through graduate school?

AK: Anything worth doing will be difficult. While graduate school and being away from my family is challenging, I have already experienced small successes that would never have happened if I stayed where I was comfortable. These successes are my motivation.

Q: What do you want to do with your degree?

AK: I either want to work in industry helping with product or technique development or work in a lab focused toward the same end.

Q: Did you take time off before starting your Ph.D. degree or come directly from an undergraduate or master’s degree program?

AK: I continued straight from undergrad.

Q: How has your previous coursework contributed to your breadth of knowledge?

AK: In addition to majoring in biochemistry, I minored in education, learning and societies. This breadth of coursework helped me understand the societal constructs that we unknowingly create and live with, which are useful to be aware of in any situation.

Q: Do you think there is value in social networking with other graduate students in non-related fields?

AK: Of course. Through speaking to others in non-related fields, you’re able to critically talk about your field with someone who isn’t used to the typical dogma. In this way, you can learn more about your own field as well as beliefs you hold to be true and that aren’t normally questioned.

Q: Did your past experiences in life or education help prepare you for graduate school or did you have to develop different strategies to succeed?

AK: Academically, strategies I developed in undergrad were sufficient. Socially though, the transition to graduate school was hard, and I was very fortunate to have older students take the time to mentor and help me through things.

Q: What is your favorite stress-reduction technique?

AK: I really enjoy playing trumpet. I played trombone all through school but picked up trumpet during lockdown. You can’t be stressed about work or anything else when you’re playing music.

Q: What accomplishment (academic or other) are you most proud of?

AK: I’ve done a lot of tutoring throughout undergraduate school. One year, I tutored incarcerated individuals to help them obtain their GED. Every time someone left the jail, they would write a tutor evaluation. My proudest accomplishment was that every person who gave me an evaluation wrote positively of me. For some people, this was their first positive experience with formal education, and that made me extremely proud.

Q: Why did you choose Van Andel Institute Graduate School?

AK: At the University of Washington, my biggest class had roughly 500 students. For graduate school, I wanted to go to a small, specialized institution where I would have individualized attention rather than be treated as one student of many. I was also interested in studying epigenetics, and Van Andel Institute Graduate School has an excellent Department of Epigenetics staff and facility.  

Q: 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?

AK: I started doing hand embroidery during lockdown and would probably put in something I’ve made.

Interested in Van Andel Institute Graduate School? Learn more at vaigs.vai.org and read previous student spotlights here.