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Blake Chancellor: PhD Candidate in Biological & Biomedical Sciences at Harvard University.
Written by Antonieta Salguero • Edited by F.D. Rogers, M.A.
Blake is from Coweta, OK and grew up playing chess competitively. Playing chess led him not only to win an Oklahoma State Chess Championship, but allowed him to develop strategies to solve complex problems. “Once I realized I could apply my passion for strategy and problem solving to real world problems and make a career out of it, I knew I would become a scientist of some sort,” says Blake.
As a sophomore in Booker T. Washington High School, he became interested in chemistry. He completed the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme (IB), which led to his participation in a summer internship in the laboratory of Dr. Rashmi Kaul at the Oklahoma State University Center of Health Sciences in Tulsa. This experience allowed him to work alongside medical and graduate students to understand the molecular pathophysiology of urinary tract infections. The most valuable outcome was learning how to phrase scientific questions and use the scientific method to answer them. “This experience set my career in science in motion. I still talk to Dr. Kaul today,” says Blake.
Blake founded his high school’s chess club, was a member of the National Honor Society, played sports, volunteered at a hospital and was president of the Latin club. He participated in all these activities and was still able to graduate with a 4.6 GPA. He attributes his acceptance to the University of Tulsa to graduating from Booker T. Washington High School and successfully completing the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme. He thinks his GPA, test scores, and research experience helped him earn his scholarships.
Developing Research Skills at the University of Tulsa (TU) and Beyond
Choosing where to go to college can be a difficult decision to make. When Blake was considering his options, there were three major factors that influenced his choice:
1. Financial Aid: Blake received a scholarship to the University of Tulsa (TU) awarded as a graduate of the IB program, Dean’s Scholarship from TU, and the Martha J. Farrington Scholarship from the Cherokee Nation Foundation.
2. School Environment: Blake had an interest in attending a small, private institution.
3. Research Opportunities: Blake saw the potential to start working in a research laboratory early during his freshman year.
At TU, Blake majored in Biology with a minor in Chemistry and took a variety of classes in advanced molecular and cellular biology. During his freshman year, he joined the laboratory of Dr. Robert Sheaff, who studies how the dysfunction of the tumor suppressor protein p27 leads to aggressive cancers. The lab had discovered that p27 dysfunction allows cancer cells to utilize alternative energy sources in times of starvation. As a member of Dr. Sheaff’s lab, Blake screened metabolic inhibitors and eventually found a drug combination that could kill cancer cells without harming normal cells.
Even though his findings did not lead to a publication, he was able to present his work at multiple conferences at TU and around the country.
In addition to working with Dr. Sheaff, Blake spent two summers in labs at two universities in Boston. The summer after sophomore year, he participated in Boston University’s Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship working with Dr. Ulla Hansen to understand how overexpression of a transcription factor leads to aggressive cancers. The summer after junior year, he participated in Harvard Medical School’s Summer Honors Undergraduate Research Program (SHURP) working with Dr. Junying Yuan to dissect new mechanisms of programmed cell death.
“Doing undergraduate research is about learning what it means to be a scientist. I learned how to take a project from beginning to end, with every up and down included. My summer experiences taught me what it’s like to do science at a top tier university, while my long-term experience at TU taught me how to handle a research project, both when results look great and when nothing is working.”
The Life of a Harvard Graduate Student
Blake was attracted to Harvard’s Biological and Biomedical Sciences Program (BBS) after his positive experience conducting research during a summer internship at Harvard Medical School. BBS has approximately 800 affiliated faulty and a broad range of research topics to choose from. Moreover, the program pays for tuition, a stipend, and health insurance for the duration of his PhD.
A Day in the Lab
Upon arriving to the lab, Blake checks his emails and reads a research paper relevant to his field. He relies on Twitter as a way to stay up to date on updates from scientists who tweet their newest papers or retweet their colleagues’ papers. Afterwards, he starts his laboratory duties for the day. Blake manages a couple of mouse colonies for his research projects, and he works on genotyping new pups (i.e. baby mice) from his colony, which means completing a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) experiment and running an agarose gel to determine whether the new pups have genes of interest to the research team.
Maintaining a mouse colony is a lot of work, but Blake does a lot more on a daily basis. His current research project involves isolating cells from mouse brains to analyze via a technique called single cell RNA-seq. The experimental workflow starts after a mouse learns a motor task on a running wheel. Then, Blake will dissect the animal’s brain to isolate cells. Afterwards, these brain samples go through a complex preparation process which involves several core facilities to enrich for the cells of interest, separate the cells into single cell preparations and sequence the genomes. This work allows him to understand how the animal’s genes function to alter neural circuitry and support motor learning.
Blake’s research focuses on understanding how neurons and glia interact to form functional circuits that support cognition. Most research in the last 100 years has focused on the synapse and synaptic plasticity. However, within the last 10 years, scientists have discovered that myelin may actually control the neural network. Myelin is a fatty substance that insulates the axons of neurons and facilitates enhanced neuronal ring. Myelinated neurons fire 10-times faster than unmyelinated neurons. One idea is that myelination improves neural circuit function by preferentially supporting some neurons over others. By making some neurons fire faster than others, myelination can control how the overall circuit functions, which may lead to different forms of cognition and potentially learning and memory. For example, when an animal learns a new motor task, there is an increase in the amount of myelin in the motor cortex and subjacent white matter. The cells that myelinate axons are called oligodendrocytes (OLs) and OLs are formed by oligodendrocytes precursor cells (OPCs). One published experiment inhibited OPC to OL differentiation in experimental mice compared to control mice, resulting in slower learning and memory in the experimental mice.
“My project, entitled ‘Single cell RNA-seq approach to understanding experience- dependent myelination’, is focused on understanding the process by which an OPC becomes an OL capable of myelinating axons and the signaling molecules that initiate this entire process. We believe that neurons that are activated by a motor learning experience, like wheel running, produce signaling molecules in a process called activity-dependent transcription. Once the neurons produce the molecules, the molecules are released by the neurons to signal to nearby OPCs and thus initiate differentiation and subsequent myelination. This model explains how myelination may facilitate neural circuit function. The overall goal of this project is to uncover how experience regulates neural circuit function, which will bring us closer to understanding the molecular details of cognition.”
For more information on the research Blake Chancellor is doing, check out the lab of his mentor, Jesse Gray: https://gray.hms.harvard.edu/index.html
For more information on undergraduate research opportunities at the University of Tulsa, check out: https://utulsa.edu/research/turc/
Core Facilities: shared research facilities that provide access to research tools, technologies, services, and expert research consultants to aid scientific or clinical researchers who may not have those tools or relevant expertise in their labs.
Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR): a method used in molecular biology to make many copies of a specific section (or segment) of DNA.
RNA Sequencing (RNA-seq): a method used in molecular biology to characterize transcriptomes, the complete set of gene transcripts in a cell.
Synapse Plasticity: neurons altering their connections to each other to form new networks.
© Oklahoma Science Project: http://okscienceproject.org/