Kailan Sierra-Davidson received a B.A. in molecular and cellular biology from Harvard University in 2012. She will enter the National Institutes of Health Oxford-Cambridge Scholars Program as a Ph.D. student in the fall. As an EXROP student in 2010, she researched the immune system’s control of HIV at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa with HHMI investigator Bruce Walker of Massachusetts General Hospital.
Q. What has led you to pursue a career in science?
A. My freshman year of college, I started working in an HIV/AIDS lab with Bruce Walker at Massachusetts General Hospital. I have always been interested in infectious diseases, and I was working with HIV there, but I felt very distanced from the actual problem of the disease caused by the virus. Every day I would go into the lab and I would do an experiment, and it would fail, and I wouldn’t really understand why I was doing anything.
So the summer after my sophomore year, I asked if I could work on a project in the group’s new partner lab at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa. It was really there that I knew I wanted to do a Ph.D. Before, I’d been thinking that I would do this research just so I’d know that I didn’t want to do research as a career, and afterwards I could go to medical school. But when I went there and began working with a patient to determine whether he was infected with HIV, a lot of the project was my own independent work. There wasn’t really anybody who I could ask questions to if the experiment failed. That gave me a deeper understanding of everything that was happening, and it added a personal sense of the beauty of how science can work.
Q. How did doing research at the University of KwaZulu-Natal compare to the lab work you had done so far?
A. When I was in Boston, I had the latest technology, and you could just plug something in and it’d be done in a few hours. And if I had a question, an expert on the subject was in the next room. When I went to South Africa, I didn’t have that. I didn’t have anybody looking over my shoulder telling me, “You need to put solution A in before you put in solution B.” When I had questions, I couldn’t even contact the people who might have the answers. And ultimately, there was no one telling me why I was doing a particular experiment: I had to figure that out for myself. That forced me to think critically about what I was doing, and it gave me a love for going into the lab every day.
Q. Where would you like to be in the future?
A. After I complete my Ph.D., I plan to apply to go to medical school. Eventually, I would like to work at a university as a professor, teaching and helping people within a clinic, and researching. But I want to make sure that my research is applicable to what is actually happening on the ground in countries where a disease is endemic. While working in South Africa, I realized that going to grad school would really help me to help a lot of people. My PI, Bruce Walker, really helped me see the effect that even small, precise experiments and findings could play in the larger world. He helped me understand that through work in the lab, I really could truly have an effect on people and I could still interact with them.
Q. How will your Gilliam fellowship help you pursue those goals?
A. The scholarship part took a weight off my shoulders, but the real value is the connection to HHMI investigators. I think that the role of that mentorship, and the opportunity to talk to people in different stages of their careers who are very successful, both in terms of science but also in terms of problem solving and creativity, is what’s important. Going to the conferences and interacting with that community of scientists will be really helpful for me. That’s why I’m really excited about the fellowship.
Photo: Paul Morigi/AP Images for HHMI