Graduate student spotlight: Pursuing a lifetime of curiosity

Every other month, we highlight one of Van Andel Institute Graduate School’s doctoral students. This month features Eric Cordeiro-Spinetti, a student in the lab of Dr. Scott Rothbart, who has a passion for science education and is searching for new ways to treat heart defects.

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

ECS: In the beginning of our lives, we are formed by only one tiny cell. But as we grow to become a baby, these cells multiply and transform to gain specific functions and form each organ like the heart, brain, skin, and so on. My project tries to understand the role played by one protein in the formation of heart and skeletal muscles. This protein is called SMYD1 and it is linked to problems in heart shape in newborns (congenital heart defects) and heart function (cardiac hypertrophy). So, it is very important to understand SMYD1 function to develop better treatments for these patients.

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

ECS: Curiosity about the nature of life led me to do biomedical research. Graduate school is the best training for how to transform this power of curiosity into facts and get us closer to the true nature of things.

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

ECS: My biggest goal is to be a positive force for research in Brazil, but I’m still figuring out the best/coolest way of doing it. Staying in academia was always my dream, but I am considering positions in pharma consulting, communications and public policy.

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

ECS: I did not take much time off, since I defended my Master’s thesis in June and arrived here in August. However, I had already known I was coming to VAI since January, so the last six months of my Master’s were taken very easily.

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

ECS: Most of my previous knowledge comes from experience doing stem cell research and mentoring students in the lab. Coursework does not help much with doing research. In my opinion, resilience and creativity are much more important to do research, and knowledge is gained as you pursue a scientific problem.

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

ECS: Ph.D. training is a rough journey. There is a lot of pressure for perfection in a setting where failure is much more common than success. When we connect with other graduate students to share our experiences, we see that most people go through the same struggles. Also, each field has a different approach to inquiry and different scientific questions to pursue. It is very enlightening to be exposed to the thought process and logic of these scientists.

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

ECS: Getting through the Ph.D. training is a validation from academia of my ability to investigate a biomedical problem (such as disease). Earning this degree will allow me to use the skills gained during my Ph.D. training to generate knowledge to solve other problems in society.

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?

ECS: I have been doing research since before my undergrad, which was very helpful to design my thesis project. But nothing can really prepare you for graduate school. Every step of the way has different challenges, and if you are having an easy Ph.D. experience, you are doing it wrong! Things change constantly, so you always have to develop new strategies to survive.

Q: What is your favorite stress-reduction technique?

ECS: Picking flowers for their aroma.

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

ECS: Science is Art! When I moved to Grand Rapids and learned about ArtPrize, I decided to start a similar kind of contest here at VAI. The first year, we had very few entries from graduate students, but it has grown over the last two years as other scientists/artists joined Science is Art. This year, we had wide participation, with VAI employees serving as judges and voters for their favorite piece (with 139 votes in total). All of this success was only possible because of the amazing contributions from [Student Affairs Specialist] Nancy Schaperkotter, and fellow grad students Menusha Arumugam, Nadia Dehghani and Nathan Spix.

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

ECS: As an “Engager,” I often talk to kids from Van Andel Institute for Education about the research being done here. Since I was drawn to science very early in my childhood, I try to pay it forward to the next generation of scientists by bringing more kids like me to this career. It is very energizing to connect with such raw curiosity and I feel like I’m the one who learns the most in each tour. It’s important to be able to talk about science to different audiences, and being an “Engager” is the best training possible.

Meet more of Van Andel Institute Graduate School students here.