Graduate student spotlight: Driven to make a difference

Every other month, we highlight one of Van Andel Institute Graduate School’s doctoral students. This month features Jamie Endicott, a student in the lab of Dr. Peter W. Laird, who is investigating how regulation of the genetic code changes with age.

Q: How would you describe your area of study to your grandparents?
JE: I research a field called epigenetics, which looks at factors beyond the sequence of DNA that are important in the proper functioning of a cell and tissue. Some epigenetic changes can directly affect cell behavior, like influencing gene expression. Other epigenetic changes are involved in how DNA is organized within a cell’s nucleus. The organization of DNA is very important because we pack so much information — about 6 feet of linear DNA — into each single microscopic cell. If you think of DNA in a cell as if it were luggage in the trunk of a car, the way the luggage is packed makes a huge difference in how easy it is to find, for example, a favorite pair of socks. For a cell, it might need to turn on a gene really quickly, so it needs to be accessible. In particular, I look at a chemical modification of DNA, called DNA methylation, and how its distribution changes with disease and aging, and how that is related to the packaging of DNA within the nuclei of cells.

Q: What is your primary motivation for persevering through graduate school?
JE: Curiosity is a huge driving factor in my perseverance through graduate school. I am thankful to have a very interesting and “cutting-edge” project, which gives me lots of creative freedom in my experiments and keeps me learning new techniques. Beyond that, I am a very achievement-driven person who is generally motivated to find out just how far I can go. 

Q: What do you want to do with your degree?
JE: I’d like to lead a research laboratory either in a clinical or academic setting. Right now, as I enter my third year, I am very focused on learning the skills I need to become a good leader and quality scientist.

Q: Did you take time off before starting your Ph.D. degree or come directly from an undergraduate or master’s degree program?
JE: I graduated with my Bachelor’s degrees in 2014 and almost immediately started rotations in a clinical diagnostics lab to become certified to work in that field. I worked for a few years in the clinical lab and doing research on cartilage before starting this program.

Q: How has your previous coursework contributed to your breadth of knowledge?
JE: My coursework and experience in the clinical lab gave me a wide platform of knowledge and analytical skills. My time in the clinical lab gave me a practical understanding of emergency medicine and — probably most importantly — a sense of urgency and responsibility toward my work and to my community.

Q: Do you think there is any value in social networking with other graduate students in non-related fields?
JE: Absolutely, there is so much value in forming connections with people from all walks of life. Great ideas often come from unlikely conversations and collaborations.

Q: How do you think earning an advanced degree will change your role in society?
JE: As a professional scientist, I will have an obligation to advocate for scientific thought at every level of society. Additionally, inspiring future scientists is probably the most important thing I will ever do, and I will have an obligation to mentor young scientists. I’ve been lucky to have had excellent mentors, and it’s important for me to give that energy back to the next generation.

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?
JE: Competing in endurance sports has been very helpful in my survival of graduate school! The mental grit developed from hours-long competitions and prolonged training cycles definitely helps me persevere through particularly stressful moments in graduate school. It also gives me a healthy outlet to maintain my identity beyond “graduate student.”

Q: What is your favorite stress-reduction technique?
JE: I usually try to minimize stress before it can happen by planning and scheduling extensively. When stress is inescapable, I like to go for a long run or hike with my husband and dog. Moving outdoors usually gives me a sense of clarity. 

Q: What accomplishment (academic or other) are you most proud of?
JE: I’m most proud of deciding to keep endurance sports as a priority through graduate school. It has been really tough to maintain but has also been incredibly rewarding. Consistently hitting workouts around an otherwise busy schedule is not exactly fun nor easy but it has really made me commit to goals and forged a lot of mental stamina along the way. During moments of success, like winning a race or giving a great talk at a scientific conference, I am able to look back proudly on the work and sacrifice it took to get there.

Q: Are you involved in other community activities and if so, how have they shaped your graduate experience?
JE: Maintaining an identity outside of grad school has been critical to my success. I’m involved with the Grand Rapids endurance sports communities (running, cycling) and the camaraderie I find there has kept me sane and balanced through this process.

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?
JE: I’m not a very material person, but what I would like to keep and revisit often are the memories of formative experiences during my time here. For example, when I gave my first invited talk at a large conference, or when I was the first person to see a really cool result from my experiments — I’d love to hold on to those moments.

Q: If you hadn’t been admitted to graduate school, what do you think you would be doing right now?
JE: I’d likely be working in a clinical lab and riding my bike a lot more.