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Staff Spotlight: Michael Pham

Saturday, January 5, 2019

Our first “Spotlight” interview of 2019 falls on Michael Pham, a research technician in the lab of Al La Spada, MD, PhD.  Pham talks to us about his work researching pathways and proteins related to ALS and autophagy, the spectacular chapel views and five-minute walking commute offered by his new MSRB3 lab facilities, and his enjoyment of piano composition and world dance while not at Duke.

What are your current responsibilities within the Department? What does a typical day for you look like?
I work as a Research Technician II alongside Dr. Somasish Ghosh where I research pathways and proteins related to either ALS or autophagy. In a typical day, I supervise my undergraduate students and run whatever experiment that needs to be completed for that day which could include western blots, cell culture, and transfections. I also work closely with the mice in the vivarium; I used to work for the colony manager back in San Diego so I have a decent amount of knowledge for every mouse line in the colony but nowadays, I'm primarily in charge of CRISPR edited mouse lines that we use for our projects.

What project(s) are you currently focusing on? How will that work ultimately help us understand or treat neurodegenerative conditions?
I'm currently leading the Transcription factor EB (TFEB) project which involves behavior studies on the CRISPR edited mouse lines. These mice contain either an S3A or S3E base change and theoretically serve as models for a phospho-mimic of autophagy or an autophagy suppressor. I've also cultured their neurons from day 2 pups and have treated them with drugs and performed ICC. This project will hopefully shed light on the interplay between TFEB, autophagy, and cellular metabolism which may lead the scientific community to potential drug targets in neurodegenerative conditions.

What do you enjoy most about your work?
I enjoy being surrounded by brilliant individuals that range from grad students to research technicians to post-docs. La Spada lab boasts a fun group of people that brings both intellect and personality to the workplace and I love the coworkers and friends I've made at the lab. Unlike other labs, the people at La Spada make an effort to socialize with one another outside of work hours and it's nice to be in a community with good people.

What’s the hardest part of your job?
I think many people in the research field will agree with me that the hardest part of the job is the constant failure associated with this workplace. To spend three days on a Western Blot just to see no bands after visualization is heart-breaking, especially if you have no idea what went wrong since there are so many opportunities for things to go haywire. My life has become a cycle of failure, troubleshooting, and occasional success in my experiments. The failures can sometimes lower morale and kill motivation, but that's just life. The important thing is to keep trying, and the failures ultimately make the successes that much more fulfilling.

If you could have any job in the world, what would it be?
I would love to compose music for movies. I'm incredibly passionate about making music and to share that passion with the world via a common media outlet like the cinema industry would be a dream come true. To hear my work on the big screen would be an astounding accomplishment in my opinion. Hans Zimmer, the film composer for movies like The Dark Knight Trilogy and Inception, is responsible for setting the emotional landscape of movie plots and I love his work.

You and the La Spada team moved into the new facilities in the MSRB3 earlier this year. What do you think of this new location? How does it compare to your previous facilities in the Bryan Building?
The new building is utterly breathtaking compared to the Bryan Building. Equipped with tall windows with the view of the Chapel at every bay, a spacious break room with 3 microwaves, two fridges, and a makeshift ping pong table, and NOSH only a couple floors down, MSRB3 is the pinnacle of a comfortable and inviting work environment. I live at Duke Manor, too, so the commute for me has gone from 15 minutes of walking to 5 minutes. The elevators are expedient, the lights are all white LEDs, and the convenience of having Erwin Plaza right across the street can't be beat. The only downside I can think of is that Chik-Fil-A is now a decent walk away compared to the Bryan Building location.

What passions or hobbies do you have outside of Duke?
Outside of the academic setting, I like to focus on the artistic side of my brain. I play the piano and guitar, but I spend a lot more time playing the former. On some weeknights and most weekends, I collaborate with musicians I meet online or other musicians in the lab and we just jam out for hours. I was classically trained as a kid, but I quickly picked up pop, alternative, and jazz influences. Nowadays, I mainly compose original works on the piano. On top of music, I'm also heavily invested in the dance world. I take private ballroom dance lessons which include but is not limited to the following dance styles: salsa, chacha, bachata, rumba, tango, swing, foxtrot, and waltz. I take lessons at BallroomU in Cary which hosts newcomer dance lessons every Tuesday for anyone interested.