Name: Rae Nishi
Degree(s): B.S., Ph.D.
Graduate School: University of California, San Diego
Undergraduate Institution: Stanford University
Current Position/Univ.: Professor, University of Vermont Medical School
Research Interest(s): How the nervous system develops; What causes neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's or Parkinson's Disease

I was a professor at Oregon Health Sciences University in Portland, Oregon, but moved to the University of Vermont Medical School. Let me first tell you how I got my education. When I was in high school, I went to a special summer program sponsored by the National Science Foundation for studying marine biology, math and oceanography at Humboldt State College. I liked it so much I knew I wanted to study science in college. I went to Stanford to get my Bachelor's Degree in Biological Sciences. I did different kinds of research as an undergraduate. One spring I went to the Monterey Peninsula in California and studied Marine Biology at Hopkins Marine Station. The next summer I went to the Sierra Nevada mountains and studied chipmunks. I loved doing research. After I graduated, I went to the University of California at San Diego where I studied for my PhD in Biology. It took me five years to get my Ph.D. To get a Ph.D., you have to study hard, do research in a laboratory, and write a doctoral thesis. A doctoral thesis is like a book. Mine was about 60 pages long, but some other people write ones that are more than 100 pages long!

After I got my PhD, I went to Harvard Medical School to get postdoctoral training. When you do postdoctoral research, you train in the lab of another scientist-- it's like being an apprentice. You have to learn a lot about how to do research and how to think like a scientist. I worked for six years at Harvard. Then I got a REAL job.

I started as an assistant professor at Oregon Health Sciences University. In academic science, you go through ranks, just like in the military. But instead of going from Sergeant to Corporal to Major to General, you go from Assistant Professor to Associate Professor to Professor...but only if your colleagues think you're good enough. Lucky me, I'm a Professor now.

So what do I do as a Professor and a scientist?

  1. I teach. I teach medical students about the brain. I teach graduate students about how to do research. I also teach graduate students about ethics in research-- which means how to be responsible citizens when you carry out your research.

  2. I am an administrator. I help the medical school and the university run. I advise other people about what to do. I work on committees. I help organize things.

  3. I run a laboratory. I write grants to get money to do my research. The grants come from the U.S. government-- the National Institutes of Health. Right now, my lab is funded by about $380,000 per year. For every grant that I get, the University gets money, too. The University gets 50% of every dollar I get. So if I get $380,000, how much does the University get? ($190,000). With the money I get, I hire people to do the research, I pay 50% of my salary, and I use the money to pay for supplies and equipment. So running a lab is like running your own business. You hire and supervise people, and you have to keep a balanced budget. You have to keep track of your money and spend it wisely. You also have to keep your research doing new things. Some people think that being a scientist means working by yourself in a big laboratory and being lonely. That's not true. My lab is a small one, but it has seven people besides me working in it. That means that everyone has to get along and work like a team. You have to learn how to be cooperative and helpful. Some big labs in science have 100 people in them!

How do you do research? You have probably learned this when you learned how to do a science project. First, you have a question. Like, why do my mother's plants in the kitchen always turn brown and die? Then you have a hypothesis. A hypothesis is like an educated guess. Like, my mother's plants aren't getting enough sunlight to live. Then you test your hypothesis. You do an experiment. You take three plants to the dining room, which has more light (experimental group). You leave three plants in the kitchen (control group). You watch the plants. If the plants in the kitchen have turned brown like always, but the plants in the dining room stayed green and healthy, then your hypothesis may be right. If the plants in the kitchen turn brown and die, and the dining room plants look yucky too, then your hypothesis is wrong, and you have to make a new hypothesis. Your new hypothesis might be that the air in the house is bad. To test your new hypothesis, you would take three plants outside to an area that had the same amount of light as the kitchen. You would also leave three plants in the kitchen. Then you would see what happened... Do you see what I mean? This is what I do, only the questions I ask are different.

The questions I ask are about how the nervous system develops. Your body can't work without your nervous system. Did you learn that your nervous system is your brain, your spinal cord, and the ganglia (balls with lots of nerve cells in them) in your body? To study how the nervous system develops, my lab uses chicken embryos. Why chicken embryos? The embryos develop inside an egg instead of inside a mother's body, so we can make a hole in the egg and watch the embryo develop. We also take out tissues from the chicken embryo and grow them in a plastic dish so we can watch the nerve cells develop. We do lots of things in my lab. We even clone things-- but not chickens! We clone cells and pieces of DNA (genes).

I love being a scientist. You are always learning new things every day. You never stop learning. It's also fun to be the first one to discover something. I work hard, but I like it. I work 48-50 hours every week and I wish I could spend more time in my lab.

GO TO: Explore the Nervous System Table of Contents

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