Graduate student spotlight: Investigating molecular ‘gates’ to understand and treat disease

Every other month, we highlight one of Van Andel Institute Graduate School’s doctoral students. This month features Emery Haley, a student in the lab of structural biologist Dr. Juan Du. Emery studies molecular “gates” that aid in cellular communication and that play important roles in health and disease.

Q: How would you describe your area of study to your grandparents?

Emery Haley

EH: The cells in our body can control what enters and exits them using “gate” proteins called ion channels. These work similarly to a dam gate on a river. When the gate is closed, the water builds up on one side, and when the gate is activated and opened, the water rushes through. When ion channels are closed, ions build up on one side of the cell membrane. When a signal opens the ion channel, the ions can come pouring across the cell membrane. Sometimes the gates can be damaged, leaving them stuck always open or always closed, or otherwise unable to correctly respond to the signals telling them to open or close. If this happens, the cell will not be able to perform its job properly.

The goal of my work is to understand the structure of one of these ion channel’s “gates” that malfunctions in Type 2 diabetes. Understanding the structure is important, because it allows us to design a drug that specifically acts on the channel, much like the way a locksmith can design a perfectly fitting key only after learning what the structure inside the lock is.

In order to do this, I will be using a special microscope called a cryo-electron microscope. This microscope makes it possible to take pictures of the ion channel. Because the channels are so tiny, each individual image is unclear, like when you try to take a picture with a camera phone using the maximum zoom. By taking millions of images of the channel from many different angles, and using a computer to line them all up and average them together, I can get a clear image of the structure of the ion channel. I can also take pictures when the channel is open versus closed to see how those differences might affect the way the drug “key” interacts with the ion channel “lock.”

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

EH: I have always been attracted to science because I am a naturally curious person. I am really very self-motivated when I have a question I’m trying to answer.

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

EH: I want to work in the field of science communication helping to share science with lay audiences. I believe that by combining my passions for writing and science I can help address the disconnect between the scientific community and society as a whole.

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

EH: I graduated with my Bachelor’s degree one semester early in December 2016 and worked as a lab technician for a vision science lab at University of Alabama-Birmingham while applying to graduate schools. Then I came directly from my undergrad institution to start at Van Andel Institute Graduate School in August 2017. My last day of work at UAB was a Thursday, I packed and drove to Michigan and moved in on Sunday then started at VAI on Monday. My advice for others would be NOT to do what I did and to take at least a few weeks to travel or relax before starting the Ph.D. program.

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

EH: Since my background was in systems (cell and animal) models of neurodegenerative diseases, I decided to change fields to structural biology for graduate school to focus more on the molecular level analysis of disease pathways. By focusing my dissertation project on ion channels, I am able to take advantage of my previous neuroscience training and relate my findings to my knowledge of disease pathways in living organisms. Don’t be afraid to try something new in graduate school, it’s the perfect chance to gain experience in a new and exciting field. 

Q: Do you think there is any value in social networking with other graduate students in non-related fields?
EH: Absolutely! You never know where your next idea, job opportunity, or friend will come from. Networking with people in other fields can give you a fresh perspective, but it can also reveal some surprising things you have in common. 

Q: How do you think earning an advanced degree will change your role in society?

EH: Earning my Ph.D. will give me the experience necessary to understand the current advances in science and medicine so that I can communicate them accurately and effectively to society. I think a lot of the misconceptions that exist about science stem from articles written by well-meaning journalists who do not have the appropriate scientific background to put the work into context without exaggerating or misrepresenting the details.

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?
EH: My undergraduate experience in a research-based/problem-based learning-type honors program prepared me well for the format and demands of the Van Andel Institute Graduate School program. 

Q: What is your favorite stress-reduction technique?

EH: Yoga and meals out with friends are my favorite go-to stress reduction techniques. I also love a hike or camping trip or anything that gets me out into nature, because I have always found the outdoors to be soothing. 

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

EH: Being myself. It has been a challenge to navigate the process of “coming out” and pursuing my medical transition during my Ph.D. training, but I am proud of my commitment to be my true self no matter the challenges.

Q: Are you involved in other community activities and if so, how have they shaped your graduate experience?

EH: While I don’t plan to have kids of my own, I believe it is important to invest in and give back to the next generation of society, so I volunteer with several community organizations and events that focus on reaching out to kids. I give one-on-one tours to high school and college students interested in science careers and lead K–12 student tours with the Institute’s Engagers to pay forward the time people spent helping me discover my passion for science. I love being able to break down stereotypes and inspire kids to pursue science, plus I learn a lot myself by explaining my science on a level accessible to 5th graders. Outside of science, I volunteer with a youth group at the Grand Rapids Pride Center to stay involved with the LGBT+ community and to give the kids support that wasn’t available to me as a kid. All of these activities remind me not to get caught up with things inside the lab and my own project.

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

EH: The short answer is that at the heart of my decision was trusting my gut and choosing the school where I felt most at home. I loved that the students, faculty, and staff all seemed to be collaborative rather than competitive and the small size made me feel like I would never be “lost in the crowd.”

The long answer is that I was deeply impressed with the unique environment at Van Andel Institute Graduate School. The problem-based learning program was one major appeal for me. After finishing my Bachelor’s degree, I never wanted to sit in a large lecture hall-style class again. The student-led discussions and practical learning applications are an excellent way to learn in a way that is particularly relevant to Ph.D. careers. The Institute’s research in neurodegenerative disease and structural biology were another major appeal. Of course, the financial and technical support provided by the Graduate School and the Institute is excellent as well.

Q: Has your perception of this Ph.D. program changed since you began the program?

EH: The biggest surprise for me was that I ended up joining a lab in a field completely different from my previous experience and from my expected graduate focus. With its small size, Van Andel Institute has a more limited number of research areas compared to many universities, but it has a more specialized focus in these areas, so students are often recruited with one of these areas in mind. My advice to incoming students is, no matter how confident you are in your plans, be flexible and open to trying new things. Graduate school is the perfect opportunity to enter a new field. I am constantly impressed by the amount of resources and support we receive as Van Andel Institute Graduate School students. I knew it was good when I accepted admission, but the more I compare with my peers at other schools, the more I realize what a uniquely supportive environment we have at the Institute.

Q: If you hadn’t been admitted to graduate school, what do you think you would be doing right now?

EH: If I hadn’t been admitted to graduate school I would probably still be working as a research tech at my undergrad institution and working my way toward a lab manager position.