Visitor of the Week: Sonia Chin

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Meet Sonia Chin of Friends’ Central School. After earning her PhD from Johns Hopkins University in 2016, Sonia joined the independent and co-educational Quaker day school as an Upper School Science Teacher and just completed her first year teaching Biology I Advanced and Biology II Advanced Genetics Super Lab. She is on campus for the Frontiers & Techniques in Plant Science course where she is gathering material for a plant biology course she would like to begin offering her high school students.

Before becoming a teacher, what were your research interests? What were you working on?
Before becoming a teacher, I was interested in sensory neuroscience - particularly how animals sense the environment and what their brains do to generate an appropriate behavioral response. My graduate work in Chris Potter’s lab involved studying how the female fly brain processes olfactory stimuli to decide where to lay eggs, an important choice that impacts the survival of her offspring. I completed my PhD in October 2016 from Johns Hopkins University Department of Neuroscience; and I’m excited to say that on July 4th (during this course) my thesis work identifying a brain region specifically geared towards recognizing and avoiding smells associated with bacterial infection and larval parasites was accepted for publication!

As a teacher, what are your science interests and goals for your students?
I aim to introduce my students to how wonderfully weird biology can be and challenge them to use what they know to form novel and interesting ways to ask questions and problem solve. By incorporating practices rooted in the training of a scientist – such as the scientific method, frequently posing open-ended questions, and troubleshooting inquiry-based labs – I hope to help my students achieve these goals and make biology relevant and interesting. Most importantly, I hope that the skills they work so hard to hone in my class transfer to the other domains of their lives to logically evaluate information they encounter out in the world.

How did you know you wanted to become a teacher (as opposed to continuing to work in the lab)? What factor(s) helped/led you to make the career decision?
Typical of any young scientist’s developmental progress, I had an existential crisis at the beginning of my third year of graduate school. This, along with the added stress of a health scare, motivated me to take off a couple of months from graduate school to work on my mental and physical health. During that time, I found summer employment at a nonprofit called the Biotechnical Institute of Maryland teaching Baltimore City high schoolers interested in biomedical sciences to work in the lab. It was there that I discovered a love for teaching high schoolers.

While I love the life of the mind that professional scientists live, upon graduation, I thought hard about what to do next and determined that there are plenty of newly-minted PhDs who will become great scientists and, perhaps, relatively fewer PhDs who joyfully see teaching high school biology as a viable, first choice career path. Having just completed my first year of teaching, I love it. Teaching high school is equally dynamic to doing science day-to-day, puts me in contact with endlessly interesting people, and has been incredibly rewarding.

How did your scientific journey begin? 
I think I have a classic story here: During senior year of high school, I remember looking at a neuron slide and thinking how cool it was that I could see cells and measure things to understand how they work. More importantly, my high school biology teacher, Karen Shepherd, encouraged us to read popular science books, and a book called Dr. Tatiana’s Sex Guide to All Creation by Olivia Judson really captured my imagination about evolutionary biology and the weird behaviors in the animal world. 

Was there something specific about the Frontiers & Techniques in Plant Science course that drew you to apply?
I constantly think about what I can offer to my students not only through the curriculum but also from my experiences as a scientist. Presently, I teach a fall semester course, Genetics SuperLab which covers epigenetics and optogenetics, followed by an independent project by the students. I would like to expand my curriculum by offering a more molecular biology and experiments-based plant biology course in the spring (which will complement the botany course my colleague teaches in the fall).

Also, since earning with my PhD in October 2016, I miss working with my hands and doing science so I thought a CSHL course would be an amazing opportunity to hang out with scientists and bring new skills back to my school.

What and/or how will you apply what you've learned from the course to your work? 
I already plan to replace one of my labs with a technique I learned in the Plants course. When a pollen grain contacts the stigma of a flower with female anatomy, the single-celled grain of pollen extends a tube (up to one meter long in corn!) to deliver two sperm cells inside the ovary. One of the two sperm ultimately fuses with an egg cell to form an embryonic plant while the other fuses with a large cell, called the central cell, which eventually grows into endosperm, the part of a seed that provides nutrition for the new plant. In foods like beans and corn, endosperm is where we gain the most nutrition from eating. I like this system because it is dynamic and I think my students would really enjoy learning about some of the cell biology and signaling involved in double fertilization in plants. And to watch the process in real time would (literally and figuratively) help the lesson come alive for them. 

I will also probably use some of the bioinformatics tools covered in the course to talk about gene expression and how understanding evolution and phylogenetic trees can inform hypotheses about biological phenomena.

What is your key takeaway from the course?
Plants have evolved to address evolutionary pressures that are very different than animals, and their biology is both similar and different to animal biology in some pretty profound ways. Because of some major differences from animal biology, it has been interesting - to me - to see how differently plant biologists use inferences derived from the similarities in genetic sequences across species to support their hypotheses and conclusions. 

How many CSHL courses have you attended? Have you participated in a CSHL meeting? 
This is my first course at CSHL, and I would never have predicted that I would be taking this course as a high school teacher. Also, I attended the Neurobiology of Drosophila meeting in 2011 and 2015

If someone curious in attending this course asked you for feedback or advice on it, what would you tell him/her?
Frontiers & Techniques in Plant Biology is an excellent course for someone who wants to quickly get up to speed on plant science. I have really enjoyed hearing talks and learning from scientists  in their areas of expertise; it feels a bit like being at a really long conference because it includes such a diversity of topics and types of techniques. Learning to use computational tools and programming would have been tremendously useful at the beginning of my PhD which leaned more towards animal behavior and genetics. I am happy to see my fellow students, who are mostly early-year graduate students, getting such a well-rounded training covering multiple levels of research.  
What do you like most about your time at CSHL?
How welcoming the students, instructors, and scientists have been to answering my (probably) naive questions!

Sonia received funding support from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and from an endowment created by an alumnus dedicated and passionate about science education at Friends' Central School. On behalf of Sonia, thank you to NSF and to the alumnus for supporting and enabling our young scientists to attend a CSHL course where they expand their skills, knowledge, and network.

Also, thank you to Sonia for being this week's featured visitor. To meet other featured scientists - and discover the wide range of science that takes part in a CSHL meeting or course - go here.