Graduate student spotlight: Using powerful microscopes to understand cancer and improve medications

Every other month, we highlight one of Van Andel Institute Graduate School’s doctoral students. This month features Zachary DeBruine, a student in the laboratory of Dr. Karsten Melcher. Zachary uses powerful, high-tech microscopes to study important molecules called proteins, the workhorses of biology. His work has important implications for understanding cancers and designing improved medications for these devastating diseases.

We caught up with Zachary to ask about his work and what it’s like to pursue a Ph.D.

Zach DeBruine

How would you describe your area of study to your grandmother?
I use powerful microscopes to zoom in on proteins and see the details of their shapes. The proteins I study are often responsible for driving cancer and resistance to chemotherapy, but also are involved in early steps of how the human body takes its shape and how it heals after wounding. I am also using new techniques to design drugs that will affect how these proteins work, in ways that stop cancers from growing without causing bad side effects.

What is your primary motivation for persevering through graduate school?

I view my grad school training as a gateway to a successful career leading basic science research, and I love what I do every day.

What do you want to do with your degree?
I’d like to work as an independent investigator in academia, though I’ll be happy to see where else life can take me if other amazing opportunities come within reach.

Did you take time off before starting your Ph.D. degree or come directly from an undergraduate or master’s degree program?
I joined VAIGS immediately after obtaining my Bachelor’s in science from Hope College. I had a lot of research experience coming out of my undergrad in addition to a solid foundation of knowledge from a lot of elective coursework. I was also really looking forward to taking my research to the next level.

How has your previous coursework contributed to your breadth of knowledge?
I definitely appreciate the biochemistry electives I took during my undergrad, as it prepared me well for the more problem-based curriculum at VAIGS. In grad school you won’t get (or rather, shouldn’t get) spoon-fed textbook material, so it’s really on you to build a solid framework of knowledge before commencing your Ph.D. studies.

Do you think there is any value in social networking with other graduate students in non-related fields?
Certainly! I enjoy engaging in diverse seminars and discussions and integrating new ideas into my project, but at the same time it’s important to stay focused.

How do you think earning an advanced degree will change your role in society?
My doctoral studies will help me develop professionally and obtain the qualifications necessary to make a substantial impact on drug development, be competitive for funding opportunities, and aim for success within the scientific community.

Did your past experiences in life or education help prepare you for graduate school or did you have to develop different strategies to succeed?
Grad school feels much more like a job than an education—you get paid to work toward your degree! I spend most of my time doing research, writing about my findings, and discussing data rather than cramming flashcards and memorizing textbooks. So while coursework in my undergraduate was crucial, being professionally diverse during that time has really opened lots of doors for me here in graduate school, and I won’t ever regret having juggling extracurriculars, leadership positions, teaching assistantships and tutoring. It’s all paid back.

What is your favorite stress-reduction technique?
If I work hard, I play harder. I enjoy shredding trails on my mountain bike, spending time with my wife and kid, and getting outdoors.

What accomplishment are you most proud of?
My first-author manuscript in Genes and Development, next to my other publications, which represent much of my Ph.D. work—minus the failures.

Has your perception of this Ph.D. program changed since you began the program?
It’s not quite as scary as I thought. I have a good work life and a good family life, which is already more than I was expecting. Plus, I continue to be amazed by the West Michigan community and the resources at VAI, including financial support and benefits, professional development opportunities, faculty availability and scientific productivity.

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?
2015 capsule: I did one thousand mini-preps
2016 capsule: I spent half a year trying to solve a protein structure
2045 response: Oh, it takes 10 minutes to prep DNA, a machine does that
2046 response: No need to solve that structure, they’re all solved now

If you hadn’t been admitted to graduate school, what do you think you would be doing right now?
I don’t give up on my dreams.