Fiona Tamburini is a graduate student in the Genetics PhD program at Stanford. Fiona studies how the microbes that live in our bodies - the “microbiome” - impact our health. In this post, Fiona shares her journey toward becoming a scientist and how she became interested in genetics and microbiology research.
I often wish that I had a neat little narrative about why I became a scientist. It would be so convenient to point to a particular moment in time, like a memory of a childhood chemistry set or butterfly garden, where I was struck with a bolt of inspiration and realized I wanted to become a researcher. In reality, though, it was more like a trickle of small but meaningful moments that opened my eyes to wonder about the world and the bodies we live in.
When I was younger, I was always curious about nature and our universe, but this didn’t manifest in a clear way at first. As a child, I was interested in so many different aspects of the world around me. I had a phase where I was fascinated with insects and got in trouble for bringing spittlebug nymphs from the bus stop into my fourth grade classroom, and religiously rounded up food scraps from my friends to feed our class mealworms. I also had an almost gory fascination with the human body – I would pick scabs to see what was underneath (gross, I know), and I was absolutely mesmerized by the medical TV shows that I would watch with my nanny after school. I’m lucky that I had many opportunities to explore nature during my childhood – I was constantly sleeping over at my cousins’ house and playing in the woods. My cousins showed me how to find witches’ butter fungus and little orange newts, and it put me in touch with the natural world in a way that I think is becoming ever rarer in our increasingly paved, sanitized suburban atmosphere.
Fiona pretending to work on a computer in her dad’s office as a kid! Little did she know, she would later fall in love with computer science! :)
My dad is a biochemist, so being a “scientist” was one of the first careers on my radar. But I don’t think that I wanted to be a scientist necessarily just because my dad is a scientist, but more because my dad is, well, my dad. He showed me how interesting the natural world is because he is truly so excited about science, and that enthusiasm was infectious. Usually parents tell their children bedtime stories – instead, when I was small my dad used to tell me “True Stories” about planetary motion, subatomic particles, and life in the deep oceans. It’s not the most unique origin story, but I’m so fortunate to have a parent who opened that door for me. The beauty of it was, my dad showed me how fascinating the universe is, but left me to my own devices at that point. He never made me come do experiments in the lab with him or forced me to read biochemistry textbooks. He let me come around to becoming a scientist on my own terms, in my own time.
And by college, I was ready to get more serious about being a scientist. When I arrived at Boston College for my freshman year, I knew I would study science, and I decided to go for a biochemistry major. Seeing as my dad is a biochemist by training, it seemed a reasonable enough decision. Also, I felt like I had my bases covered with biology plus chemistry – you see, I don’t like to commit! I love trying new things and I’m always hedging my bets. I chose biochemistry because the course requirements were fairly broad, and I didn’t want to limit myself. I believe this same tendency is the reason why I ended up doing genetics research later on. Genetics touches so many aspects of biology – you can study the genetics of the brain, of inherited disease, of the immune system, or even of other organisms. If you understand genetics, you can study so many different biological systems, and in that sense, you’re always free to research new topics based on that skill set.
Early on at Boston College, I knew I should try my hand at laboratory research, but I wasn’t sure which lab to try to join (typical indecision on my part!). I took a genetics and genomics class, one of the courses required for my major, early in my sophomore year. I remember that I was taking notes when my professor, Dr. Hugh Cam, began to talk about these things called “transposons,” these bits of DNA that can jump around in a genome, and I remember thinking, “WHAT???” I actually started getting very nervous that I was going to die from transposons shuffling around in my DNA! It turns out that these “jumping genes” can’t actually harm you (phew), and in fact, Dr. Cam researched transposons in his lab! I knew I wanted to get involved. I actually ended up joining Dr. Cam’s lab and doing research there for the rest of my time at BC.
Fiona presenting a poster on her work as an undergraduate researcher.
I had been doing undergraduate research for about a year and I was pretty interested in applying to graduate school, so I decided to learn more about the qualities that PhD programs were looking for in potential applicants. Most of the graduate program websites I looked at suggested having at least a basic familiarity with computer programming, so I thought, “Hey sure, I have room in my schedule, I’ll take one class to check that box – why not?” I quickly became OBSESSED with it. I spent hours on my homework every week perfecting my code because it was so satisfying to write in this language that could transform input into output and execute complicated tasks. I thought, “WOW, I have to figure out how to use this in my career!” This happened in my junior year, and I realized I still had time to cram in a minor in computer science during my last year and a half of undergrad, so that’s exactly what I did.
By the time I got to Stanford for graduate school, I knew I wanted to do genetics research that impacted human health, but I wasn’t sure what type of lab to join to do that. At the time, I was reading this great book that my uncle gave me called A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson. It’s a really gripping nonfiction book about our natural world and how we’ve made discoveries and technological advances to learn about where our planet came from. The one part that struck me the most was the chapter about microbes. It got me thinking a lot about the microorganisms that live all around us: how dynamic and resilient they are and how profoundly they can influence our lives and our health. Coincidentally, around that time I met Dr. Ami Bhatt, who was a new faculty member at Stanford. At our annual department retreat, Ami gave a captivating talk about her research – it turns out that each of us has trillions of microorganisms on and inside our body, which we call the “microbiome.” I was so surprised and excited to hear about all of the ways that these microbes affect our health. Ami had just started her lab and was focused on studying the role of the microbiome in disease. Even better, her research used computational tools to study the DNA of the microbes in our body, and I realized that I would be able to apply my programming skills to my research if I worked in her lab. The way Ami spoke about the microbiome was so mesmerizing that I knew I had to see about working with her. And the rest is history – I’m now a fourth-year graduate student in her lab. So, things really came together in a nice way – maybe I did get my nice little scientist story after all! :)
Holding a plush microbe—Fiona’s new obsession!
True to form, my research projects in Ami’s lab at Stanford have been diverse – I can’t seem to settle on just one topic! I’m currently studying whether bloodstream infections in immunocompromised patients come from the gut microbiome, and I am working on another research project focused on finding microbial biomarkers of cardiometabolic disease in two South African populations. I am lucky enough that I get to do hands-on wet bench experiments as well as lots of computer-based data analysis in my work – it’s really the perfect intersection of my interests in genetics, microbiology, and computer science!
As I look toward the future, I still can’t fully make up my mind about what I want to do next. I still want to be a researcher and a data scientist, but I also dream of being an astronaut and exploring the origins of life on earth. The beautiful thing about being a scientist is that you’re never “stuck” with whatever it is you’re working on in the moment – you are always learning and growing and developing your knowledge and your interests. I couldn’t imagine a better career!