Lauren DRAKE '16, PhD Candidate

After completing her undergraduate degree in bioengineering at the University of Pennsylvania in 2020, Lauren DRAKE ’16 chose to continue her studies and is now pursuing a Ph.D. in biomedical engineering at Vanderbilt University. During her time at Penn, Lauren worked as an undergraduate researcher in the Shorter Lab, studying the biochemical mechanisms underlying neurodegeneration and contributing to multiple projects and papers. In addition to these pursuits, she completed minors in creative writing and journalism and received Honors in English for her creative thesis. As a member of the Lippmann Lab at Vanderbilt, Lauren improves the complexity of brain organoids for use as a physiologically relevant neurodegenerative disease model. She was recently awarded a National Institutes of Health T32 Alzheimer’s Disease training grant. She is also a member of the executive board of the Diversity and Science Lecture Series at Vanderbilt.
Years at Ellis:
Grade 5 to Grade 12
Education:
BSE Bioengineering, University of Pennsylvania; currently pursuing PhD Biomedical Engineering, Vanderbilt University
Location:
Nashville, TN
Occupation:
PhD Student


Why did you decide to pursue biomedical engineering?
I became interested in tissue engineering research as a part of the Future City team in seventh grade at Ellis, so I majored in bioengineering in college and focused on being involved in research. I was primarily engaged in biochemistry and neurodegeneration research while I was an undergraduate, and also had the opportunity to engage in tissue engineering research one summer through a National Science Foundation Research Experience for Undergraduates at the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine, so for my Ph.D., I selected a lab that specifically focused on tissue-engineered 3D brain models for use in studying neurodegenerative diseases.

Is there a project or accomplishment that you consider to be the most significant in your career?
I was a co-author on a paper that was an international collaboration assessing the biochemical mechanisms of several novel mutations discovered in patients diagnosed with multisystem proteinopathy, an inherited condition with many neurodegenerative symptoms. It was my job to introduce patient-specific mutations into the genetic DNA, express the mutated protein, and then observe how it aggregated and altered toxicity compared to the unmutated control protein. We observed several different mechanisms that may have impacted each disease state, which suggests that corresponding treatments may also need to be mechanism- or mutation-specific. 

How has your career path changed over time? Did you always know you wanted to do what you’re doing now? 
When I was a kid, I really wanted to be a veterinarian. I changed my mind when I was twelve. I was on the Future City team at Ellis, and our essay assignment that year was on medical advances of the future. We came up with an idea for this portable bioreactor sleeve for limb regeneration. I thought it was just the coolest idea ever, and I decided I wanted to be a tissue engineer. So here I am eleven years later, working on neural tissue engineering advances.

What lessons has your research experience taught you?
Write everything down. Leave no detail unremembered. If you make a mistake, learn from it—don’t keep banging your head up against the wall, trying the same thing over and over without changing what you’re doing.

What is your best memory of Ellis? 
I deeply enjoyed my senior year Raku and wood firings and all the other arts opportunities I had. While my career is focused on engineering now, I really enjoyed all of the opportunities I had to engage in the arts—visual, literary, and performing. 

We often talk about girls developing their voice at Ellis, what does that mean to you? How do you use your voice?
I don’t think voices have to be screaming to be impactful. I am never the loudest voice in the room, but I definitely learned to use mine. I mainly think of how my voice has been used within and in support of my communities. When I started college, I was concerned about being supported as I navigated my ongoing mental illnesses, so I co-founded a chapter of Project LETS (Let’s Erase the Stigma) on my campus to function as a support and advocacy group for students with lived experience of mental illness. I attended conferences and worked with the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law on altering existing policies, but mainly, I sought to be a source of support for anyone who was struggling. Our group held monthly support dinners where we all talked through our current challenges, and I helped students initiate asking for accommodations and tried to be present as a person to lean on.  

How did Ellis stimulate your intellectual curiosity and creativity? 
I deeply appreciated how much space I was given to explore the things that interested me. I was clearly on a very science-heavy track, but I still had so much flexibility to take art classes, write poetry, perform in musicals, and work on things that mattered to me, even if they didn’t necessarily adhere to my primary career plans. It’s useful to be engaged in practices I value and enjoy beyond my employment, like fiction writing, and learning more about relevant issues like racism, law, and climate change. Even though my main area of study is neurodegeneration, I’m still engaged in learning based on what concerns and interests me. 

What is the most important lesson you learned at Ellis?
This is something relatively simple, but honestly so useful in my career. When we were working on Future City in middle school, we would have no shame in emailing researchers about their work to try and learn more. Some people wouldn’t be too helpful, but I remember for our green energy essay when I was in eighth grade, we were looking into “artificial photosynthesis,” and at the time this lab in Switzerland was putting out research related to that. We ended up maintaining an email correspondence with those scientists and they thoughtfully answered all of our questions and helped us ensure our project ideas were scientifically accurate. That meant so much to us as kids, but even as I started my research career, I discovered that if something in a scientific paper doesn’t make sense to you, or you have questions about their technique, it never hurts to ask! Asking questions has been so hard for me, but the most important skill I’ve developed. 

How do you spend your free time?
I like to read, both fiction and non-fiction. I like listening to news and science podcasts while I cook dinner or drive somewhere. I knit sweaters and blankets, I spend time with my wonderful cats, I try to keep up with writing. My boyfriend and I love going on hikes and playing through pinball museums and vintage arcades. I also just got a kayak, so on weekend mornings, I’m paddling at the lake. 

How would you describe yourself in three words?
Punk cat mom. 
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