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  • Writer's pictureVedant Parikh

Lab Notes on: Dr. Sandra Adams

Updated: Aug 11, 2023

Rebecca Zhang's notes on Dr. Sandra Adams, a biology professor at Montclair State University.


Dr. Sandra Adams is a professor of biology at Montclair State University. As a student, she attended the University of Georgia, Georgia State University, and the University of Pittsburg, returning to the latter two for her two Ph.D’s. Afterward, in 2001, Dr. Adams transitioned directly to Montclair State University (though she did almost take a post-doc position at CDC). Now, she specializes in molecular virology and biology education, focusing particularly on a rather unique field: natural products and how they affect viruses and virus replication.

However, Dr. Adams did not always participate in this line of research; when she first began, Dr. Adams worked as a conventional molecular biologist. She was introduced to the study of natural products when one of her students mentioned the efficacy of turmeric against the Sindbis virus. Dr. Adams wound up conducting her first assay using natural products on curcumin, the active ingredient in turmeric. Following this, a former student of one of Dr. Adams’s collaborators wanted to test the efficacy of EGCG* against the herpes virus. Dr. Adams’s collaborator recommended her to the student, and since then, Dr. Adams has been working in her niche.

*EGCG, short for epigallocatechin gallate, is a polyphenol from green tea extract. It is typically unstable, but once stabilized, EGCG can provide numerous health benefits.

Though the differences between conventional molecular biology and her current field are quite prominent, Dr. Adams still finds herself using familiar processes like PCR*, or more specifically, qPCR** and RT-PCR***. She never finds the repetition of these procedures boring, though, and explained how familiarity with such procedures is beneficial— it takes a long time to be able to complete assays correctly, and new scientists often start with more failures than successes. Still, however, Dr. Adams is always open to incorporating new things into her lab. As a matter of fact, she recently began including bioinformatics and considering using flow cytometry****.

*PCR, short for polymerase chain reaction, is a commonly used procedure for synthetic DNA replication. It utilizes a machine called a thermocycler and a thermostable DNA polymerase I from Thermus aquaticus bacteria (Taq polymerase), which can withstand the high temperatures PCR is conducted under. Once the DNA of interest is prepared and placed in the machine, PCR is completed.

**qPCR, or real-time PCR, uses a specialized thermocycler that monitors and quantifies the amplification of the DNA of interest as PCR occurs.

***RT-PCR, or reverse transcriptase PCR, combines reverse transcriptase and PCR to amplify (increase the amount of) and quantify mRNA. Typically, DNA gives rise to RNA, but in reverse transcriptase, RNA is used to produce DNA using reverse transcriptase enzymes.

****Flow cytometry is a laser-based lab test in which a sample of cells is suspended in fluid and injected into a flow cytometer machine, which detects and analyzes the chemical and physical characteristics of the cells.

Working with natural products and living cells especially requires great deals of patience and dedication, but Dr. Adams says the frustrating and repetitive factors of lab work never discourage her from research. She emphasized the importance of flexibility, enthusiasm, patience, persistence, and reliability, for the progression of science does not adhere to the scientist’s schedule— truly passionate researchers will always make time for their studies. Dr. Adams explained: “I want someone who realizes that you cannot say, “Well, I’m going to work only Monday and Wednesday in the lab.” I say, “No, you work when your cells are ready, and your cells may not be ready on just Monday and Wednesday.”

And because of the amount of time students must spend in her lab, and because she can work directly with her students, Dr. Adams loves not only her research but also her students. Her favorite part of her work is experiencing the development she sees in her students as they grow in her lab. Though that is not to say Dr. Adams lacks any passion for her work. Like many other researchers, Dr. Adams struggles to choose a favorite project. Each is different, and simply the process of trying new products, seeing if they work or not, and exploring their functions is where the true fulfillment lies. One question will always lead to another, more complex or detailed one, making research more fascinating as it progresses. Whether or not something works, for example, is an easy question to test. However, finding out why something works is much less simple. The question of “why” often falls into Dr. Adams’s study of fundamental mechanisms. And though she focuses more on basic functions, she loves seeing where her work may develop into something applicable to help other people.

All this may not have happened if Dr. Adams didn’t make the decisions she made. When she went back to school for her second Ph.D, she was older than most of her peers. However, she persevered and was led to where she is now. Dr. Adams’s passion is why she can do the research she does and, through her experience, she sincerely encourages that “it’s never too late to go back and do that one thing you’ve always wanted to do.”

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