Baylor College of Medicine

Science and Graduate Training during a Pandemic




[Intro Melody] 
Juan Carlos: Welcome everyone, to the Baylor College of Medicine Resonance podcast. My name is Juan Carlos Ramirez. I am one of your hosts. 
Alice: And my name is Alice Wen, and I'm also a co-host for this episode. 
Juan Carlos: And Alice is also our, the lead writer for this episode. And today, we're going to talk to Dr. Carolyn Smith, as we will discuss her career path as a scientist, as well as her time as dean of The Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences here at Baylor. We will also highlight her motivations for dedicating her time to graduate education, her goals as Dean, the challenges that covid-19 has posed to The Graduate School, curriculum and rotation schedules, with ongoing student research, and her vision for the future of The Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences.  
Juan Carlos: So, for those of you who may not know, Dr. Smith serves at Baylor as a faculty member in the molecular and cellular biology, Urology, and she's also a member of the Dan L. Duncan Comprehensive Cancer Center. She's the director of the Tissue Culture Core and Dean of The Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences. So, she does wear many hats. She obtained her Ph.D. from the University of Western Ontario and completed her post-doctoral training here at Baylor College of Medicine before, joining the department of molecular and cellular biology as a faculty member. She has been involved in graduate school education, first, as associate director of the translational, biology, and molecular medicine graduate program.  
Juan Carlos: She followed roles in The Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences as assistant Dean for curriculum, senior associate Dean for graduate education and Academic Program development, and now interim dean. 
Alice:  Correction: She is now Dean officially dean.  
Juan Carlos: She is officially Dean.  
Alice: Yes, it has changed since I wrote. Yeah. 
Juan Carlos: And she is interested in finding ways to enhance the effectiveness of our graduate program by supporting the professional development of our own students and postdoctoral fellows. We feel very blessed and we're also very excited to have her on the show, but I will ask. I mean, it's very obvious. Why you chose to have Dr. Smith on our show today. Is there any reason that more so compelled you? Is it her education? Is it her career path? Is it sort of, her life story? 
Alice: I think a combination of things. First of all, I think her role as interim Dean and now dean of the graduate school played a huge factor in my interest in interviewing her just from a first-hand account. Our programs are, first of all, being restructured to face the ever-changing landscape of Science and to prepare future students for careers in a wide array of different fields. And secondly, I think, obviously, her research background is quite impressive as well. She still runs a lab acting as dean of graduate school. So, I think it I think it's something to be admired, and something that hopefully we will gain a little bit more insight into all the qualities she has balancing that science with her administrative goals, and yeah, I think she's a perfect candidate to interview for a podcast focus on highlighting extraordinary leaders at Baylor.  
Juan Carlos: I concur I completely agree with you and I just want to preface this, I guess, for our listeners, and say that her story is very inspiring. Never give up when someone tells you that, that may be the science isn't cut out for you. This is more motivation to persevere and push forward and one day become the dean of The Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences at a top institution. So, without further ado, let's talk to Dr. Smith.  
[Interlude melody] 
Alice: We're very excited to have you on the show. Dr. Smith. Could you tell us a little bit about your career background and science, what are your interests, and where did you train?  
Dr. Smith: Sure, happy to do that. So, I got interested in science from a very early age. Science was one of my favorite classes. I can remember going back to middle school, but that was really where I had the best experiences in class. I really liked interacting with my science teachers when I was in Middle School, and I was also fortunate to have a great uncle who when he retired from the military, decided to spend his time studying science as a retiree, and he was really great for me. He would give me books and he would have conversations with me when I was pretty young kid about science and some really kind of interesting, and, you know, maybe kind of far-out ideas, but it really opened my mind to thinking about how fun science was and how it led us really think about interesting things. So, at one point early early, when I was very small, I thought I wanted to be a pediatrician but once I got into middle school and high school, I just got so attracted into science and the idea of being able to solve puzzles, that that's really where I gravitated. I did my undergraduate degree at the University of Toronto in Canada in Biochemistry and was attracted to that because it provided me some tools to start understanding how life works and I thought that would be a pretty good way to start my education and was really fortunate to be able to get research experience. Really starting for my first year, part of that arose from the circumstances of my family. And while I was born in Canada and I lived there until I was 16, my family was moved because of my father's job into the United States when I was a junior in high school. I came into the U.S I was living on as a derivative of his Visa. So, I couldn't work as a high school student and so my parents found this summer research program at the University of Iowa, and as a junior, the summer, after my junior year in the summer after my senior year in high school. I was able to go to Iowa City and work on some research projects on amino acid transport in the small intestine. And so, really way before I should have been in a research lab doing research. That's what I got to do. So, when I started my undergraduate degree in Canada, and yes, I left Iowa to go pack to Canada, to do that degree, had a first-year biology teacher who needed a lab assistant and I wanted a job to make some money and I put up my hand and he, his main collaborator happened to I work at the University of Iowa. And so, when I said, I had been there for two summers. He thought that was Karma. And I got the job as opposed to probably 50 other people who also wanted the job. That job was looking at reproduction in insects. So, I spent four years of my undergraduate degree as a side job raising colonies of cockroaches and Locusts and then studying their reproduction. So, the lab was trying to focus on understanding that and how you could intervene in that as a method of pest control, ultimately would be the long-term application. So, I did that all the way through and then as I got into my senior year of biochemistry, I needed a research project for my senior thesis and this was quite a long time ago. So, I was working with one of the labs that had cloned the large subunit of RNA polymerase 2. Now that wouldn't be a big deal, but back then working with a gene for such a large protein was enormously challenging because handling large pieces of DNA just was not something that the technology was well-suited for at that time and that was in some ways, a very important experience for me because I did actually do all that. Well, at the cloning, it was hard, didn't have tools, didn't have kids had a lot of failures. Layers. And I remember the mentor at that point. I'm kind of suggesting to me that maybe I wasn't cut out for Science, and the kind of one of the key things for me at that point was I was really determined to prove him wrong. And so not that I made huge progress that year, but I did and I think that was a good lesson for me, in terms of developing a little bit of a hard head so that when things don't work for you in a while, when you have problems come up that you just sort of decide you're going to get through them. Whether it takes four times or you know, 25 times to get the experiments to work properly. 
Dr. Smith: Throughout my time, as an undergraduate. I got interested in in reproduction. So, the insects were part of that. But the insect work we were doing was actually with insect hormones that control reproduction. And I did want to move more into the area of mammalian biology. And so, I decided that I really wanted to work in the area of reproductive hormones, steroids in particular were quite interesting to me. And so, at that point, I had already met the person who would become my husband. And so, I had certain geographical constraints that I was wanting to live with. So, I was only looking at universities in Canada to do my graduate work. And so, I did go from Toronto to a city of about couple hours West of there to London, Ontario. And I did my Ph.D. there and I did my work on the proteins that are in the plasma that transport sex steroids. So primarily for me corticosteroid binding globulin, so that transports glucocorticoids and that was a great experience.  
Dr. Smith: I had the fortune of joining a lab where the faculty member had just come to the university and they were setting up their lab. And so, I had the chance to see how you set up a lab, how you write initial grants, how you get everything going, and because there weren't many people in a lab. Even as a beginning graduate student, I got exposed to a lot of different  
aspects of how you set up and run a lab, and as well, it was a really productive time. It was when cloning and sequencing were just getting going as major technologies – poured, probably hundreds, but it feels like millions of sequencing gels, and had to make our own sequencing reactions. It was really a time of trying to figure things out from first principles, but it was a great experience. We got lots of work done, lots of papers published, and because I had that chance to really see how things work as not. Certainly not as a PI, but someone working very closely on a regular basis with their PI. I got a great experience and a lot of training, not only in the science, but how you sort of think about conducting science at a laboratory level.  
Dr. Smith: At that point, I really wanted to continue my training and I was certain that I wanted to continue my career in studying how sex steroids worked. And so, I wanted to move from setting how they are transported in the circulation to how they actually get in a cell and what they do. And because of that, I was looking at some of the top labs in the world for who was studying, sex steroids, and the biology of them, and, of course, was very interested in the work that was being done by Bert O'Malley and Bill Schrader. I had read a paper there's as, in a second-year undergraduate class and it was a paper. They had published in Scientific American, and I just thought it was the coolest thing. So, by the time I'm finished my Ph.D. And I thought I had actually had the opportunity to maybe come to a lab like that I was really thrilled. So, I came to Baylor as a postdoc and worked in their lab and that's, that's sort of the early trajectory of sort of just being interested in science and then sort of finding out that that area that I was interested in was really related to steroids and how they work. So, it's been a great time. I trained here at Baylor, became a faculty member, and I'm still here. So, it's been a great place to be.  
Alice: Really cool! That's very, very interesting that you moved from insects to mammalian systems and then specifically homed in on reproductive hormones and their effects on gene expression. Can you tell us a little bit about what you hope your research could accomplish maybe in the fields of Health Care and patient populations? 
Dr. Smith: Sure. You know, what, as I, when I came to Baylor, I wanted to work on sort of unique ways that steroids worked. And I had some chances as a postdoctoral fellow to look at non-traditional mechanisms of action of steroid receptors and how they could work without actually binding to steroids as part of components of cell signaling Pathways. And that work led into a fundamental question that was really difficult to understand back when we started this. And that is how there are classes of drugs that will bind to steroid receptors and can sometimes turn them on and sometimes turn them off and their ability to turn on or turn off the actions of the steroid receptors was dependent on the cell environment they were in. So, it was a great way to bring together my interest and how receptors could work without ligands as components of signaling pathways to marry that with the idea that steroids with some types of ligands for them, could behave either as stimulators of transcription or inhibitors of transcription. And so, bringing that together, we, in conjunction with Dr. O'Malley as a postdoctoral mentor and then as I launched my own laboratory, we spent a lot of time trying to understand the relationship between Signaling Pathways ligands and these mixed responses. And that turned out to be really quite important in terms of, thinking of drugs, like tamoxifen that had been really widely used for breast cancer. And the reason for that was, you know, tamoxifen was used really widely. It was often very, very effective and then when would develop resistance to the drug and tumors would start to grow again and not only with tumor start to grow in face of the tamoxifen, but the tamoxifen became a stimulator of growth. So in in the context of people and treatment for a, you know, really terrible disease – we were seeing the same thing that we could do in cell model systems either it could stimulate a response or it can inhibit response. And so, it got us interested again in thinking about the differences that occur within tumors that sort of change that interpretation. So it's led to the concept of selective modulators for steroid receptors in particular, the work we did really establish the field that there are selective estrogen receptor modulators. And that was really the first concept for steroid receptors that there could be these dual regulators of their activity and it allowed not only folks in the estrogen receptor fields to think about this but also as we've gone on it, Now, expanded it to the Androgen receptor field, the glucocorticoid receptor field, and progesterone receptor field. Where we know in all of those there are abilities to really dial with more sensitivity or more specificity than we thought possible Agonist versus antagonist actions. So, that's one of the things I think that, you know, I really was pleased to be part of it really helped launch that field and I think it's a, it's been a really great that's emerged into thinking, more about how estrogens contribute in different ways, to development of breast cancer. And so, that's an area where I think we still have lots of things to sort out in terms of estrogen and risk profiles for breast cancer. It's pretty easy for many many folks, to think of it as estrogen is bad, with respect to breast cancer, but there's actually interesting data that suggest much more complex than that. Again, I think we're going to be thinking about receptors in context of their environment, different cell types, different stages of development and different responses. That's where I think there's lots of future within the steroid receptor field.  
Alice: Really cool. I also wanted to ask you about your position as dean of the graduate school at Baylor. What sparked you to, I think, pursue that position? And what do you hope to accomplish in your time as dean?  
Dr. Smith: Thank you for the question. And so, as a faculty member here within the college. I like many, many other faculty, was interested in mentoring students and being involved with my graduate program. And so that really wasn't very different from a lot of other people here. I got interested in getting more involved in education from an administrative perspective. When the college was thinking about how to set up a new graduate program. And the idea on this was to try and blend together the idea that we have, we trained basic scientists and we trained clinicians, and we trained clinical scientists, but you hear a lot about the gap between basic research and clinical research. And so, there was a group thinking about how to bridge that gap and my department chair, who was Bert. O'Malley suggested, I might like to participate in that group, and it fit in really nicely with my research work because we were thinking about tamoxifen and breast cancer and how to understand changes in how patients with breast cancer responded to the drug. And that was really an area where there were lots of clinical people thinking about it and basic, scientists thinking about it. We were trying to figure out how to pull those things together. So, I got involved in this group. It ultimately led to the formation of the translational biology and molecular medicine graduate program. And so, I was very involved in that program for a number of years as an associate director and help establish that program along with the directors at the time. And so that was one aspect that really kind of got me a little bit more involved in administration and then shortly after that the college was going up for accreditation by the southern association of colleges and commission on colleges and  
they needed, we needed to have a plan for bringing new training to students at the college. And we thought maybe translational medicine and translational science might be something that would be different. And so, I ended up leading the, at that time the quality enhancement program, so initiating a couple of programs at the college and that got me very interested in administration at education and from there it just grew got involved versus assistant Dean for curriculum, and then that's evolved to the position I have today. So, it really came out of my science and trying to figure out how we create programs to train graduate students and medical students to have more awareness and skills in the area of translational medicine.  
Alice: So because covid-19 has kind of changed the entire landscape of what education looks like and say it same is true for all aspects of Education from K to 12 to college. Obviously, it's heavily impacted graduate students as well. What are some of the major challenges that you have had to overcome is Dean during this time? And how do you foresee that any of the changes just might change the entire future of graduate programs or curve? 
Dr. Smith: It is clearly changed a great many things when it started last March in 2020, we were just coming into the end of our big push for recruiting in new students for the folks that would matriculated in August of 2020. And so, in many ways the timing of the start of the pandemic was as about as good as it could have been. We had finished our in-person interviews with students. And so, we could finish up recruitment through regular email and typical virtual types of communication. And our first-year students were in their fourth term. So, they were already pretty comfortable with how things work at the college and their faculty and things like that. So, we certainly have had to learn since that time how to do all of our classes remotely. And so, this has been, I think, a big learning experience for the faculty where they've had to learn how to use zoom. I mean everyone's had to learn how to do Zoom but teaching on zoom is a little different, especially if you wanted to have small group activities and things like that. So, we've had to do a lot of things to learn in that area. In some ways, it's been really great. I think we've had many faculty comment that they're actually having better discussions with students because it feels like you're talking to someone right in front of you. It's not like a big room where there's someone in the back, and you can't really see them. And so, in a lot of ways it can feel a lot more personal and so you do get more discussion and people are traveling less. And so, I think in many ways that has been a positive on the overall education programs. We have brilliant faculty here at Baylor that are in high demand, it often means many of them are gone for a large portion of time. That's just not the case now. So, in some ways it's really been a positive. If one wants to say, there's any positive coming out of the pandemic, but that's been great. I think having more of that interaction between students and faculty because you feel like you're talking right with them face-to-face. Those have been great things coming out. On the negative side of things, it does take more time to prepare classes. And, you know, there are always technological glitches. And so, we know sometimes that's just not very satisfying for students. We know it's not satisfying for faculty. So, you know, some of those things, I'm sure will be glad when we don't have to always rely on a computer screen when someone has a nice quiet room to be able to participate in a class and the delay and the disruption in the research certainly was a huge, huge event, you know, you really couldn't have imagined in any other context other than a something like a pandemic, the idea that you would sort of walk out of the lab one day and might not get back in for a couple of months. And that's really extraordinary, you know, a lot of experiments take enormous amounts of time and very careful work to get them set up. So that you can get a model system or an experimental system where you can collect good data. And for anyone who either had that up and running or was just on the verge or even really just starting in the lab and trying to figure out how they were going to set up their experiments that time away from the lab was really, really very disruptive. So that certainly is going to be a factor. Now we hoped and certainly encourage students and faculty to you know, make lemonade out of the lemon that we were all served up and and use that time to read and plan and analyze data that you had. So I'm hopeful that for, you know, many of us students faculty postdocs that, that was sort of some forced time to think about projects and, you know, develop some new ideas and maybe connect with people and experiments, you could do, once we get back to the lab. And snow where we are, where we are at this point and students are now doing all their classes remotely. We hold them for the most part. I think they go fairly. Well, I certainly think people would love to get back together though, and there's smaller groups and be able to present their data and you know, stand up in front of a crowd and sort of talk about the things that they're most passionate about. But I think you know, we've tried as well as you know, everyone at the college to make the best of it. So, there will be things we take away that we think of finally and those that will be happier over.  
Alice: Um. We’re all looking forward to the day when we can get back to in-person event, but I think we've been quite resilient throughout this entire situation. So I’m really very grateful for Baylor's programs and the support the day offer too.  
Dr. Smith: Well, I would say, I have just been so impressed with everyone and their response, and really, their resilience, and the ability to create new things. Things even better than we had before. So it's been really fantastic to be part of such a creative and innovative community.  
Alice: So, thinking of creating new things. Actually, I wanted to ask you. So, I know the Baylor graduate program has been undergoing a program restructuring. And for the past couple of years. Can you tell us what motivated The Graduate School to pursue such a move and what they hope to accomplish with this restructuring? 
Dr. Smith: Sure. So, the restructuring was something that we had been thinking about a number of people that had been thinking about for two or three years before we began to really start seriously planning on it and that thinking was motivated by the reality of science changing over time. Right? So, if you think about how medical schools and basic science departments in medical schools were set up, they were really established so you have an Immunology department, so you'd have immunologists who could teach Immunology to medical students and if you go back in science, you know, immunologist had a whole set of techniques that they use to do their work and biochemists had a whole set of techniques that they use to do their work and geneticists and so on but science has changed and evolved so much in the last, you know, latter third of the 1900s and it, you know, it just keeps accelerating and and as we looked at how graduate programs were set up and we looked at the faculty and we looked at what people were doing you suddenly realize that the techniques that geneticists use were the same that biochemistry people were using and, and people in cell biology department were using, we are sharing so much. And we're so dependent and utilize each other's resources that some of those divisions didn't make sense. So that was one component of it. We didn't actually realize it, but if you looked at the underlying data, if you had students in a genetics program, only half of them were in the genetics department, the rest of them were spread out. Out across the college. So, we thought perhaps we might start thinking about science more, as areas of scientific interest that were broader than departments. So that was part of it and of the programs that emerged from the restructuring. We certainly have several that really are very Broad and touch, really largely across many, many areas of science and research and partners with a college. So that was one part of it. The second part is we had realized, as we had gone from, the more traditional department, based systems and to biology that was much more transdisciplinary and inclusive across departments that some programs have gotten very small and some programs had gotten very big and one of the things we know to in that was that if you were a student in a large program, your experience could be quite different from your experience as a student in a small program. So, you might have fewer people to interact with. Maybe if you are faculty, that could serve on committees, do our research opportunities, and we really wanted to try and get rid of those extremes of very large departments, and very small departments, and try and create an environment where students had a much more equal opportunity to access resources, regardless of which program they joined. And then the thing we wanted to do was to try and align these areas of programs and their research with research strengths at the college. So we wanted to be able to offer robust mentoring experiences, coursework, technological and experimental support in areas where the college had a lot of depth and present that to a candidate. So that when they would come in, they have a really great experience with not necessarily the work of having to create entirely that experience for themselves and there is some value in doing that. But it shouldn’t always have to be, feel like like you're starting from scratch to do that. So those things kind of came together and we're part of the prompt for us to start the transformation and then as we started doing that, we got: Well, if we're going to look at changes in programs, let's really take a look at all the key things that we do as academic milestones and Ph.D. training and see if that's the way we want to keep doing them or if we want to take this opportunity to change them. And so, we changed a lot of the curriculum again to kind of reflect on the idea that there's a lot common between all the disciplines and we wanted to make sure that our students coming into programs had a common tool box of vocabulary and understanding of experiments and scientific principles. And that led to the creation of our foundational courses. We have a more unified view on what should happen in a qualifying exam, which is one of the key steps before students admitted to candidacy. We wanted to make sure that the graduation requirements were comparable across all the programs. So we did all of that work. Lots and lots of students and faculty continue to contribute to discussions that took place over the course of an entire year. And we came out, I think with some really great ideas and built on the experiments of our prior graduate programs where you know, programs had huge successes and some areas. And so we thought yeah. Include those in the new programs and areas where programs that this didn't work quite well. We had lots of discussions and we were able to kind of find best Solutions or what we thought and hope will become great solutions for us as we move forward. We sort of drew upon this. So I think it was a really collaborative process where we try to take. Take all the good stuff. We had learned as individual programs in the past and put them together and new programs to go forward. 
Alice: Oh, and we only have a few minutes left, but I want to ask you, obviously, I hopefully you'll have a very long and successful career from here out. But what do you hope to be your legacy as both a scientist and as dean of graduate school?  
Dr. Smith: Hey, that's a really interesting question. I hope that my legacy builds on, you know, my work as a scientist and understanding of what we need to do and have in place to do great science and then taking that and translating that into educational programs, that help students be able to do that for themselves to have available to them resources but understand how they can work within their programs and the departments to do the best science possible. And not only be trained well as scientists, but to be trained and have opportunities to develop professionally. And so, I really like, and hope that what I accomplished at my time here at Baylor is to create an environment where people can come in and do the best science they possibly can and do the training and be able to get access to resources that lets them develop to be the best individuals that they can in terms of their own professional goals. So, I really love the idea that Ph.D. training has evolved so that people can come in learn to be really strong critical thinkers, do the science that they're most interested in and then they have opportunities to develop the skills and make contacts that lets them move into the career of their choice. We used to think about training Ph.D. candidates as the next generation of faculty. And while that still is very very important, and we absolutely are committed to doing that. One of the things I really love in my current job as every year, looking at where our graduates go in terms of their employment. And I am really continually amazed to see where people go. That gives me really a tremendous sense of satisfaction that the graduate programs here, the research environment we have here. Is such that people can come do science. They're passionate about it. And then go do really great things after that. So, I hope we are taking the Baylor concepts of, you know, great science, collegiality critical thinking and really dispersing that throughout the country and throughout the world. And if that's what we accomplish, I'll be really pleased with that.  
Alice: And one last thing is there any advice that you would like to give to budding scientists for me, maybe an undergraduate or even earlier on in their training?  
Dr. Smith: Um. So, I think you know, science is a is a huge amount of fun, right? You can find, you can develop your own questions. You can develop your own way to address questions. And you can really explore. And so, it's great because you're not constrained to specific things that you necessarily have to do to be able to advance as a scientist. So, in terms of advice, for younger people coming into science, this is a great place, use your creativity, use your curiosity, nurture, those things, and then balance that with some hard work and the curiosity and the hard work generally go really well together. You can ask questions and you have the intent and the desire to address those questions and get to answers. And that kind of brings it around to a really nice conclusion. But as in many things, life and training as a scientist is not all about work. So always make sure you balance that off. Find those things that are fun that are important to feed your inner soul and keep you energized and, you know, just excited to get up every day for many people. I hope getting up every day means coming in and doing some science and then having some fun time afterwards, but keeping those keeping that creativity going and  not being discouraged and and keeping going I think is a great way to go.  
Alice: So that concludes my interview. Juan do you have any other questions? Well, thank you for the questions. They were great.  
Juan Carlos: And as always, thank you for your time and for inspiring us all and encouraging budding scientists out there and even those who are going through tough times and looking at you as an example of perseverance, and hanging in there and one day they will be leaders in science as well.  
Dr. Smith: Yeah, absolutely. I know all of our students can. Thank you very much for having me. It was really great.  
Alice: Thank you for coming.  
Dr. Smith: Thanks.