Erica Pratt's doctoral work in Dr. Brian Kirby's lab focused on investigating circulating tumor cells (CTCs) in the peripheral blood system of patients with solid tumors and how these cells can be used as a noninvasive tumor surrogate, and as prognostic biomarkers for survival in advanced disease. Read more about Erica D. Pratt, Ph.D. 2015
Working toward One Shot to Rule Them All
Stephanie Curley, Postdoc
Hometown: Millbrook, NY
Lab Affiliation: Putnam Lab
Training: B.S. in Biological Engineering at Cornell, Ph.D. in Nanoscale Engineering at SUNY Albany
Why did you choose Cornell to pursue your postdoctoral training?
I studied at Cornell for my undergraduate degree, and I had always wanted to work with Dave (Putnam). He and I share many research interests, including working at this amazing interface between biology and chemistry/materials. He didn’t accept my application to work in his lab as an undergraduate student, but I was able to get a second chance as a postdoc!
What is your research area of emphasis?
Developing new vaccines. The Putnam Lab has mainly worked on making vaccines for influenza, but pivoted to SARS-Cov-2 during the pandemic. We have also been working on making multivalent (i.e., two-disease) vaccines. Think of it like having your COVID vaccine and influenza vaccine together in one shot.
Why is this work important?
I think the (still ongoing) COVID-19 pandemic speaks for itself!
What inspired you to choose this field of study?
I always wanted to work at the interface of biology and nanotechnology, and as a high schooler I was really interested in those ‘nanorobots’ that could repair people from the inside. I think that biological nanoparticles are the closest I’m ever going to get! My Ph.D. work focused on using a virus (something that I consider a ‘biological nanoparticle’) to deliver MRI contrast agents to the brain. After my Ph.D., I wanted to continue doing more with these biological nanoparticles. The Putnam Lab uses outer membrane vesicles (OMVs, another type of biological nanoparticle) to make vaccines, so it seemed like a logical step into a new and exciting area of research.
How has your background influenced your scholarship and/or what else has influenced your thinking as a researcher or scholar?
I have always enjoyed teaching. I tutored from 9th grade through graduate school. I find figuring out how best to help someone understand something to be a fun challenge. As a scientist, we work on writing grants to get funding for our projects, which the taxpayers pay for. If we can’t make our research accessible and comprehensible to the public, how can we expect them to trust, and fund, science? I try to make my research as understandable as possible, and I go into every presentation and conversation with that kind of mindset. It needs to make sense to everybody, not just me.
Any advice for current graduate students?
I know that coming to study at a top-tier university like Cornell can be really intimidating. Just know that everyone is finding their own path. Everyone has their own projects that progress differently. And no one really knows what they’re doing, even me! That’s why science is so interesting: people are trying to do things that no one has done before. And sometimes, you need help. As Dumbledore says, “Help will always be given at Hogwarts to those who ask for it.” I have always found that asking for help at Cornell has been much the same. Everyone wants you to succeed, so don’t be embarrassed to ask for help or guidance when you need it.
When you reflect on your time at Cornell, what stands out the most to you?
Club Putnam, of course! The Putnam Lab has made my postdoctoral experience wonderful, and I’m happy to have worked with them all over the past few years.
What’s next for you?
I've accepted a position as the Mary H. ’80 and Richard K. Templeton ‘80 Assistant Professor of Biomedical Engineering at Union College (Schenectady, NY), starting in September (2022). I’ll be continuing my work with biological nanoparticles, mainly the OMVs, but from a different perspective. Union is a primarily undergraduate institution, where teaching is a huge focus, and I’m really excited to be joining them!