Altan-Bonnet, Nihal

Assistant Professor
My Story: 
My interest in biomedical research started in high school when my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. I was quite naive, thinking that I could possibly come up with a "cure" for her disease. I became very much involved in her situation, trying to learn everything I could about cancer, in particular about cell motility and metastasis. This sudden but intense interest in science spurred me to major in Biology and Chemistry at Hunter College. Right away I sought out labs that were willing to give me an opportunity to do scientific research. Throughout the four years of college I continually worked in scientific research labs. Upon graduation I was accepted for graduate school at Rockefeller University. Rockefeller University is one of the best places in the world to do a PhD; students are treated not as students but as full-fledged scientists from the first day they step foot on the Rockefeller campus. Rockefeller has a unique environment devoid of departments and artificial scientific discipline boundaries; where independent thinking, creative research, and interdisciplinary studies are promoted above anything else.

While at Rockefeller I did my PhD thesis work with Sanford Simon, elucidating the mechanisms employed by breast cancer cells to avoid chemotherapeutics. It was in his lab that I also became first familiar with quantitative approaches to biology, the power of microscopy and in particular live-cell imaging. Sandy, even though he was starting out as an assistant professor and could have easily pressured his students to produce data, instead gently fostered an environment where independent-minded students like myself could explore scientific questions of interest, design and test experiments, and analyze results at our own pace. I thrived in his lab.

I went on to do a Post-Doctoral fellowship at NIH under the supervision of Jennifer Lippincott-Schwartz. She is a pioneer in the development and application of microscopy techniques to understand the basic workings of the cell. In her lab I really found my love for looking at basic cellular functions such as membrane trafficking and cell division, and quantitatively investigating their dynamical properties. Jennifer was also an important role model for me in a number of ways: first as a successful scientist who manages to run her lab, doing exciting cutting edge research while raising a family; secondly by her general positive disposition towards science and scientific philosophy of asking the "Why" questions. Indeed, a common characteristic of both my PhD and Post-doctoral mentors, which attracted me to their labs, is their top-down approach to doing science and their pursuit of the big questions about the workings of life. This type of top-down approach to doing science has been a guiding principle for my research as well.

Since 2006 I have been a faculty member at Rutgers University. I am working with infectious pathogens and viruses; using imaging approaches among other tools, we are investigating the dynamics of virus-cell interactions, imaging replication process of viruses within cells, and understanding how viruses hijack their hosts in order to replicate within them. I have an exciting and thriving research lab with wonderful students and post-docs who inspire me every day. I too try to inspire and push them to their limits as my mentors had done with me, and to set up an environment where discovery of something new is valued and fostered.

Growing up, my parents -- and in particular my mother -- had always instilled in me to shy away from mediocrity and complacency, and instead to work hard and strive for excellence. I follow this advice every day and try to instill it in my students. In running a lab while raising a family my biggest supporter is my husband, who is also a scientist and academic. I'm passionate about my work and what I do in the lab, and because my husband respects that and has a similar passion for his own work, he understands the need for me to work hard, to come in on weekends or work late at night.

I get great joy each day from the possibility of discovering something incredible about the world we live in. Being a scientist gives me the opportunity to find those moments of discovery.

Transcribed from an interview and edited by Lauren Miller