A Summer Science Virtual Tour

by Ona Ambrozaite

This summer, I attended each of the 30 talks offered in the Amgen Scholars Summer Science Series (S3). As an alumna of the Amgen Scholars Program in Kyoto University, I was excited to participate in this new virtual experience that took place over the course of a month. The S3 speakers were extremely diverse and well versed, creating intersections between academic, industry, and other wildly successful scientific career paths. 

It is quite hard to decide which of the sessions was the most inspiring since every single speaker brought unique stories and perspectives. It was also encouraging to hear from so many fellow program alumni about how their careers took off after participating in Amgen Scholars. 

For example, it was heart warming to hear stories from Kitra Cates, who became fascinated with the work of her host laboratory during the Amgen Scholars Program and decided to come back to pursue her graduate degree there. Such instances showcase how invaluable the connection between the Scholars and their host laboratories truly is, and how seriously the professors at the host institutions take their roles as mentors of the future generation of wonderful scientists. 

The lecture given by Dr. Joy Wolfram, “From Petri Dishes to Big Wishes,” also stood out. Dr. Wolfram demonstrated very creatively just how many different turns a scientist’s life can take and that a “linear” path is the unusual one, not the other way around. From the study of mitochondrial density in butterflies’ flight muscles to becoming part of the first Amgen Scholars cohort in Europe, Dr. Wolfram is now leading the Mayo Clinic’s nanomedicine research laboratory. What a curious adventure! I was gleaming with happiness once Dr. Wolfram told us that soon a children’s book will come out, which is based on her own journey that started with her interest in what kinds of bacteria grew on the family’s fridge. 

Reflecting on My Path

Not unlike Dr. Wolfram’s story, my scientific path has taken me from adventurous studies of HIV-1 virions in Japan to supramolecular materials research in France, and now the start of a chemistry Ph.D. at Johns Hopkins University. 

And like both Cates and Dr. Wolfram, I have experienced career-changing mentorship. As an Amgen Scholar at the Graduate School of Biostudies in Kyoto University, Japan, in 2018, I was introduced to the sort of mentorship that I knew right away would be exactly the type of mentorship I would strive to give others in the future. 

No matter how small or big of a question, my PI Dr. Shige Yoshimura made sure to answer every single one of them, whether about the details of my project on the HIV-1 retroviral lifecycle or about the logistics to attend the Gion Festival that takes place every July in many places around Japan. I will always remain thankful for the countless explanations and insights into the world of cellular proteins.  Dr. Yoshimura also displayed a great sense of humor and even provided statistics behind the Koala’s March cookies I’ve been a big fan of since the start of the Amgen Scholars Program. 

Also, Ms. Yuri Ito, the program assistant at Kyoto University, made the entire Amgen Scholars experience filled with culture, new language skills, and activities that allowed me to appreciate Japan to the fullest. Without Ms. Ito’s support, I might not have given an introductory speech entirely in Japanese. Arigato gozaimasu!

Despite staying home all summer, the series allowed me to virtually travel to institutions around the world and feel the sense of community that I’ve been longing for.

Expanding My Horizons

The experiences shared during the S3 sessions reassured me once again that it is crucial to reflect on what one’s curiosity is stimulated by. It is okay to explore a new field and fall in love with the novel. As several speakers demonstrated, this is precisely what brought them to where they stand now, be it professorship, industry position, or any other branch of scientific work. As for myself, the trajectory of gaining professorship and spreading the endless enthusiasm to inspire others has become even more defined, with ideas already buzzing in my head about what could be designed and explored at the tiniest scales possible. 

The individuals I connected with while participating in the S3 series come from so many diverse fields in academia and industry that I am sure to meet fellow Amgen Scholars at multiple points of my own career. In fact, Dr. Sara Thoi who participated in the session titled “Thinking About Academic Life in the US” works in the Department of Chemistry at Johns Hopkins University, which is exactly where I have started my Ph.D. program. Instant connections! 

The worldwide scope of the Amgen Scholars Program truly surprised me, and I am incredibly thankful to the coordinators who managed to arrange the schedules in such a way as to allow us to hear talks given by professors in Japan and Australia, for instance. Despite staying home all summer, the series allowed me to virtually travel to institutions around the world and feel the sense of community that I’ve been longing for.

Overall, S3 was a continuation of the excellent quality of experiences and information that the Amgen Scholars Program strives to provide to every student. I certainly enjoyed it as much as an exciting in-person seminar or symposium while being an Amgen Scholar in Kyoto. I truly believe S3 will be the start of a wonderful yearly project that will connect the Amgen Scholars who will continue to share their knowledge as well as learn about the adventures of their fellows all around the globe. 

Ona Ambrozaite graduated from the University of Vermont with a B.S. in biochemistry in spring 2020 and is pursuing a Ph.D. program in chemistry at Johns Hopkins University. She attended the Amgen Scholars Program in 2018 at Kyoto University in Japan.