Student Profiles

Aaron Williams

Aaron Williams

I joined the Physiology and Biophysics Department as a graduate student in September of 2009. I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area (San Jose), and did my undergraduate work in Bioengineering at the University of California, San Diego. I graduated from UCSD in 2002, and worked in the biotech industry (at Vertex Pharmaceuticals) for the following seven years. While I was working in industry, I also completed an MS degree in Cell and Molecular Biology at San Diego State University. I spent most of my time in industry working in teams developing treatments for diseases associated with ion channel function (or dysfunction). Most of industry’s R&D focus is in Development, though, and I found that I wanted to spend more of my career on Research- therefore, my decision to pursue a PhD.

When I was evaluating graduate programs, I was impressed with the breadth and caliber of the research going on in the PBio department. During my first year, I rotated through the labs of Sharona Gordon, Greg Horwitz, and Nicholas Poolos; I joined the Poolos lab at the end of my first year. The research in the Poolos lab is focused on the specific mechanisms leading from traumatic brain injury to temporal lobe epilepsy. There is a latent (epileptogenic) phase between brain insult and the onset of spontaneous seizures; during this phase, the ion channels responsible for regulating neuronal excitability in the hippocampus (hyperpolarization-activated cyclic nucleotide-gated, or HCN, channels) are downregulated. The downregulation of HCN channels leads to neuronal hyperexcitability. However, the mechanisms leading to this downregulation are unknown- in the Poolos lab, we’re using electrophysiology, biochemistry, and animal behavior monitoring to investigate these mechanisms.

Another reason that I was drawn to the program was the quality of life in Seattle. I’m really into snowboarding, and there are a lot of great resorts around Seattle. In the summer, I get to spend a lot of time kayaking on Lake Union and Lake Washington, and there’s excellent camping and hiking nearby (Olympic National Park, San Juan Islands, Lake Chelan…). The snowboarding’s great around here, too. Seattle’s proximity to Vancouver and Portland makes for the nice occasional diversion. Did I mention the snowboarding?


Edward ChengEdward Cheng

The ancients once believed that the heart was the domicile of the soul, that the inexorable beats propelled the vital humours through our sinews, endowing us with humanity. While physiologists going back to Vesalius have completely disproved this romantic Aristotelian notion, those inexorable beats of life, and the catastrophes that ensue when they are no longer, held deep fascination for an aspiring physician scientist as I sat through two years of interminably dry medical school lectures before pursuing my thesis. While it is easy to dismiss the heart as a simple mechanical pump governed by the primordial autonomic drives, as it was sometimes taught in my undergraduate bioengineering courses, its complexity and elegance can only be revealed using the approaches of classic physiology-quantitative, hypothesis driven experiments that seek to understand the intricate clockwork of the heart in situ. I joined the Santana lab in the Physiology and Biophysics Department because I get to apply the latest techniques in electrophysiology and imaging to answer some of these classic problems in physiology; for example, how does the excitation-contraction machinery maintains the fidelity that exceeds those of the finest Swiss timepiece, and how this finely tuned mechanism fails in pathophysiology.

The pursuit of science is a road filled with moments of triumph and deep despair; however, the occasional moments of despair are somewhat ameliorated by the beauty of Seattle and its numerous diversions. When I was deciding between different institutions to pursue my MD-PhD degree, I chose Seattle partly because it is one of the few cities where a graduate student does not have to be cloistered in a dank closet of an apartment like a medieval monk, nor does he or she have to be a hermit, away from the allures of civilization. The other, less trivial factor, was that the University of Washington and Seattle offer an intellectually stimulating environment where one, fueled by El Diablo Espresso and Manny’s Pale Ale, can truly mature intellectually.


Ryan EatonRyan Eaton

Reading the profiles of my senior classmates, I prefer those that convey personality. I, myself, am of the "just-the-facts-ma'am" mentality so I describe myself here accordingly. I grew up in a small town in northern California and studied physics at UC Davis. Lack of opportunity in the high-energy physics field and my increasing fascination with information processing in neurobiology motivated my shift to neuroscience, having convinced myself (naïvely) my background in physics would be an asset. For the next three years I toiled as a research assistant at Oregon Health and Science University using transcranial magnetic stimulation to evaluate disease progression in patients with movement disorders (Parkinson's disease, essential tremor and ALS). Through research assistantship I gained skills and patience to carry out experiments, but I longed for more theory and wanted to design experiments to address my own inquiries. Graduate school was in the cards for me.

I researched many neuroscience graduate programs and the Department of Physiology & Biophysics (PBio) at the University of Washington stood out among the lot. The diversity and caliber of research described in the faculty profiles impressed me most of all. Within a few minutes of digging I had already found several labs researching topics overlapping my somewhat scattered interest in neuroscience. My interview experience only strengthened my impression: faculty and students were enthusiastic and welcoming, I met four of the seven of my incoming class that weekend and many of us became good friends. Coursework proved both challenging and relevant. I rotated through labs of Fetz (explored attractor dynamics in neural network models of short term memory), Binder (compared white noise-elicited firing patterns of a cortical neuron and a simplified model) and Jagadeesh (tested the role of perceptual masks in object recognition). In their second year, most PBio students serve as TAs in a two-quarter general physiology course for dental and nursing students. While I dreaded the prospect of leading discussion sessions, I learned a great deal of physiology and became more confident through the experience.

At the end of my first year, Eb Fetz graciously took me on as his student. My project investigates recruitment of muscle-related, and pre-motoneuronal, cortical neurons during muscle contraction. In conjunction, we stimulate the medial forebrain bundle--a pathway intimately involved in reward-related behaviors---to reinforce cortical- and muscle-activity operants in the freely-behaving primate. These days I work alongside four post- and two other pre-doctoral fellows; my research has benefited from the talents and insights of each. Opportunities to meet visiting scientists, participate in department committees and present findings at scientific conferences are but a few of the benefits enjoyed by PBio graduate students.

Contrary to whatever impression the above may have formed, there is more to life than one's career. To appease my creative urges (and to blow off steam) I play drums in a rock band (my second since moving to Seattle). Seattle is a great place to go running in the summer months and it is never hard to find fun things to do.

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