Skip to main content

Biology Alumni Spotlight: Ellen Acheampong '18 

From Salem State’s biology department to Ph.D. student at UMass Medical School 

Where did you grow up and what were your major(s), minor(s), concentration or option, and year of graduation? 

I was born and raised in Ghana and moved to the USA in 2014. I majored in biology with a concentration in biomedical science and minors in chemistry and Spanish.

What is your current title and role? What are you responsible for day-to-day? 

I am currently a second-year student at UMass Chan Medical School. I joined a lab that focuses on the immune response to tuberculosis infection in the Microbiology and Physiological Systems department at the end of my first year. As a new Ph.D student, my current role and responsibilities include shadowing senior lab members to learn lab techniques, troubleshooting with others on their experiments, finding and reading papers beneficial to my potential project, performing assigned lab duties, attending and presenting at lab meetings/journal clubs, and being a team player.

What encouraged you to pursue this educational or career path?

It was not always my goal to graduate with a Ph.D. My dream was to go to medical school, but dreams do change sometimes. I worked with Professor Brown on his C. reinhardtii project over a course of two years for my thesis requirement as a Commonwealth Honors student. It was during this time that Professor Brown saw something in me that I did not see or perhaps I refused to see. He was always convinced that I would succeed in the research, but I always brushed it off anytime he brought the topic up.

It got to a point where I decided to pursue an MD/PhD career because of Professor Brown. He refused to back down from helping me see my potentials. He knew that I was a good student, and I would do good in the medical field, but he also knew that I would do great in the research field. Looking back today, all I can say is that I am glad I listened to him and started chasing that curious side of me I decided didn't exist. He encouraged me a lot and challenged me all the time to strive for the best. I hated him sometimes (in a good way) for pushing me so hard, but it was all worth it in the end.

Without his encouragement, guidance, and support, I don't think I will be where I am at today. I worked in a research lab at MGH for a year after SSU and that was when I started to see what Professor Brown saw in me. I started to see why he believed in me. Hence, graduate school and a doctorate degree in immunology in the near future. 

What skills did you learn as a biology major and how did your time at Salem State prepare you for life after graduation?

The important skill I learned as a biology major was appreciation for science. I think it is easy for everyone to say they love science or biology, but it is not easy for everyone to appreciate science. My time at SSU opened doors for me because I was so curious about what every faculty in my field was focused on. I would go to class and ask all these whys and whats about specific topics and the professors would be so excited and eager to answer my questions. I even challenged a few about certain topics in science or taught in class and they would point me to the right people for answers if they didn't have the right answers.

The more I did that, the more I challenged myself and the more I appreciated how every branch of science is related to each other. In graduate school, I read a lot of scientific papers for both my classes and lab which require appreciation for the methods and techniques used in experiments and obtaining the experimental results. By being able to appreciate the work of other scientists, I am able to fully understand papers by asking questions, finding solutions/explanations to experimental questions, generating hypotheses, replicating results, and sharing experimental data. These are skills I don’t think I would possess without being a biology major at SSU. 

Because of my time with Professor Brown, I was fully prepared for life after graduation. I was fortunate enough to start my research job at MGH a month after I graduated and because of that, I didn't face any major obstacles in adapting to the new life. All the lab skills and techniques I acquired by working with him and from the required biology labs came in handy. Therefore, I felt very well prepared to face the world outside of college. 

Was there a particular faculty member or class that had a lasting impact on you? 

Yes, Professor Jason Brown. He offered to work with me when I was searching for a thesis project and advisor during my sophomore year. Additionally, a few other faculty members including Professor Schreiner and the Scottgales who helped and directed me in whatever career path I chose.

There was also Professor Atkinson who encouraged me to join the biological society where I ultimately became an e-board member. She never ceased to direct me on the right path and was always excited to hear about the exciting things I had going for me. I must say that almost every faculty member I talked to about careers in biology or anything at all was willing to have a conversation with me. That was one thing I loved about the biology department as a whole.  

If you completed an independent research project, an internship, a study abroad, or a similar immersive experience while at SSU, please describe that experience and how it has helped you. 

I completed independent research with Professor Brown on C. reinhardtii. For this project, I isolated about 3,000 colonies of C. reinhardtii which were randomly mutated by the insertion of aph 7” gene which confers resistance to hygromycin B drug. Thirty-two mutants were generated and deflagellated by pH shock to study the generation process of the flagella/cilia. The mutants were then characterized into delay mutants and mutants with general flagella defects.

The purpose of this study was to examine the roles played by the mutated genes in flagellar regeneration and how that translated into clinical issues such as congenital diseases. This experience did not only help me grow as a scientist, but it also helped me grow as a person. It gave me the opportunity to attend conferences and symposiums and present my data, which in turn built my confidence and interpersonal skills and relationships.

The experience also prepared me for life after college and gave me an idea of what graduate school would be like. It also gave me an edge over my peers as I had more hands-on experience than they did. My advisor, Professor Brown, also was very helpful in guiding me through the process and making sure that I wasn't too overwhelmed at the time. In all, this experience was the highlight of my undergraduate career and gave me the opportunity to become a mentor to other students who had the same interests just like I did. 

What is the most exciting professional opportunity you have had since graduating? 

I think the most exciting professional opportunity was my first and only job at MGH after college. I was very nervous about landing a job because of all the stories out there. Furthermore, I knew students who got their jobs after almost a year of endless applications. This made the whole idea of graduating very nerve-wracking for me.

However, I was fortunate to have received my first job offer about two weeks before I graduated, and I eventually started working a month later. This opportunity was exciting because the job was in a field that I was curious about, immunology. Although I had no immunology lab experience, I was excited to gain some from my new job.

I made the ultimate decision to go to graduate school after working there for about 8 months. Working there exposed me to so many intelligent and high-profiled scientists and their works. I so bad wanted to be like them in the future. I was also lucky to be advised by a few of them when it came to making school-related decisions. 

What advice would you provide to an incoming biology major at Salem State?

As an incoming biology student, it is okay to not know exactly what you want to major in or do with your biology degree. However, it is also important to use your first year to explore your options. I would advise that you come in as an undecided student then figure it out once you are in and after talking with your advisors. I had the same experience.

I transferred in as an undecided student from a community college where I was studying towards a nursing degree. But because the biology department is equipped with faculty members who are always ready to offer their help, I declared a major in biomedical science courtesy of Professor Fisher.

Most importantly, do not hesitate to ask for help/advice/guidance when you feel lost. That is why you are assigned to a faculty member to advise you. Take full advantage of that. And from my experience, there are so many opportunities available to students in the biology department that sometimes you the student must put in the work to find. Just because they are not posted does not mean that they don't exist. The opportunities exist.

Thanks so much for contributing to our alumni spotlights! Is there anything else you would like us to know?

One other thing that I found very useful was the Darwin festival. These series of talks and videos were so helpful in broadening my understanding of science. I would advise that students attend them not just because they are obligated to attend and submit tickets to their professors, but because they want to learn something from every event they attend. By doing so, you get an idea about what is new in science and other challenges that need explorations and solutions. Go to the events, ask questions, take notes, talk to the presenters afterward, and make yourself known.


Learn more about the biology department at Salem State University.

Back to top