Open Labs Spotlight: Munazza Alam

Imagine traveling to Chile to use the observatory and spending free time with burros (donkeys) in the mountains. Munazza Alam, a second-year graduate student in the Department of Astronomy at Harvard University, had that opportunity. Munazza spent one week at the Las Campanas Observatory in La Serena studying signatures of youth in nearby low-mass stars and investigating the atmospheric properties of “unusual brown dwarfs (astronomical objects that form like stars, but cool and fade over time to resemble gas giant planets like Jupiter).”  Her trip was founded by a National Geographic Young Explorers Grant (read more about her trip here:


When she is not exploring space from the observatory in Chile, Munazza characterizes exoplanet atmospheres from her home institution, Harvard. In her own words, “My research involves characterizing the atmospheres of ~20 nearby, bright exoplanets. I use data from the Hubble Space Telescope taken when these planets [pass] in front of their host stars. I investigate changes in the size of the planet as a function of wavelength to infer the presence of atoms and molecules in the atmospheres of these planets. Exoplanet atmospheric studies can unveil the formation and evolutionary histories of these planets in addition to revealing information about their present-day climates.”

Her research has taken her to new places, but when she is not contemplating the cosmos, she likes to read, try new ethnic foods, and learn new languages. She reflects, “It’s hard to find a work/life balance when you really love what you’re doing because that’s when work becomes play. But it’s important to take a step back from research (although it may be hard at times to stop thinking about some of the things I’m working on!) and just take some time for myself. I find the best way to separate myself from research and focus on other non-academic activities I enjoy is to put my laptop away and go outside! Each time I do so, I always return to research with a clear mind and a fresh perspective. It definitely pays to step away for a bit.”

As she grew up, Munazza had the support of her father as she continuously asked “why?” questions. He recognized her desire to learn and encouraged her to ask questions. “This [was] really important to me, since I come from a culture where asking “why?” is looked down upon. As a child, I was often reprimanded by others for asking such questions. But I never lost the habit, and it’s exactly that question of “why?” that drives my research today.” This probably explains her enjoyment of her first laboratory experience in sixth grade. Her class learned about different aspects of astronomy, geology, biology, and chemistry. The labs answered several “why” questions and included experiments such as testing blood type, dissecting earthworms, and identifying rocks and arthropod species. Munazza says, “It had me hooked. That was the first experience that spawned my interest in science.”

Her passion for science continues today, as evidenced in her graduate studies. She reminds others to remain inquisitive and assertive, “If you’re curious, don’t be afraid to ask “why?” Try to find good mentors/advisors early on - people who will support you and your interests. Don’t be discouraged if something seems intangible. Always remain interested and willing to learn…To me, being a scientist means working on the “known unknowns” - tackling an issue to which no one yet knows the answer. Research is like a thousand-piece puzzle where everyone is trying to fit the pieces together without knowing what the box looks like. This means we all need to work together to make sure we get the picture right.”

We appreciate your story, Munazza; thank you for sharing and participating in the Harvard branch of Open Labs (! If you have any questions for Munazza or about Open Labs, please send us an email at Be sure to follow us on Facebook ( and Twitter (@YaleOpenLabs) for more up-to-date information on events and news!

Open Labs Spotlight: Holly Merta

Open Labs Member holly merta

Open Labs Member holly merta

Holly Merta discovered her passion for advancing scientific knowledge and answering questions no one has answered before while in undergrad at the University of St. Thomas in Houston. It wasn’t until she started conducting exciting research on small worms called Caenorhabditis elegans in Dr. Alex Simmons’ lab that she decided to pursue a career in science, although she was initially planning on becoming a medical doctor. As a graduate student at Yale University, Holly continues to push scientific boundaries in her investigation of nuclear envelope reformation. Similar to how a cell is surrounded by a membrane that separates it from the outside environment, nucleus is also surrounded by a membrane called the nuclear envelope that separates the important genetic material housed in the nucleus from the rest of the cell’s components. As a cell divides, the nuclear envelope has to break apart so the DNA can be divided between the two new cells. The nuclear envelope then has to reform once cell division is complete. However, the process of how the nuclear envelope reforms after cell division is not completely understood. This is an important question to answer so we can better understand diseases in which cell division is abnormal, like cancer. Holly is interested in investigating the timing of nuclear envelope reformation and the players involved.

One of Holly’s favorite parts about being a scientist is the flexible and self-directed lifestyle. She says she enjoys that she can choose what she wants to study and she can set her own schedule. Additionally, Holly loves talking to the scientists that she works with who, like her, are very curious and invested about what they are working on. When not doing bench science, Holly really enjoys music, singing, playing the piano, and writing music. She takes the skills she develops when writing music and uses them to help her to write her scientific papers so they also flow and are interesting.

Together, Holly’s experiences have driven her desire to become a teaching professor at a university. Her high school teachers at Lamar Consolidated High School and her professors at the University of St. Thomas were passionate about helping their students achieve their career goals and to develop their skills to contribute to society, which is exactly what Holly wants to do! She recommends that even if you may not know what you want to do as a career at first, to pick a path, stick with it, work hard, and do your best in that path. If you want to switch paths then you will have developed a strong work ethic and many skills that can be used in a variety of fields.

Thanks to Holly for all of her great work with Open Labs and for giving us an insight into her pathway to science! If you have any questions for Holly or want to learn more about her work, please post a comment below or send us an email!

Open Labs Spotlight: Boyang Qin

Open Labs Member Boyang QIn

Open Labs Member Boyang QIn

Boyang Qin, a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania, attributes his initial love of science to his father talking about physics and watching him perform science demonstrations when he was younger. One he particularly remembers was when his father would curl up a piece of paper into a vertical tube, put a ping-pong ball on top of the tube, and then blow from the bottom to try to knock the ball off. However, no matter how hard he tried, Boyang couldn’t blow the ball off the tube. These simple experiments sparked Boyang’s interest in science and curiosity in the world.

Although these early years may have sparked his love for science, he remains a passionate scientist because he gets to be at the forefront of what is known. As scientists like Boyang, we are always at the cutting edge and asking questions that no one has answered before. After graduating from high school in Beijing, Boyang continued to pursue his interest in science by attending Lafayette College in Pennsylvania and studying mechanical engineering and math. He is now studying fluid dynamics at graduate school- a research topic partially chosen because of his love for swimming! Fluid dynamics is the study of how fluid flows. Specifically, Boyang is interested in learning how small, hair-like structures found in the human airway, called cilia, clear debris and mucus. To address this question, Boyang studies how green algae called Chlamydomonas swim through a thicker, more mucous like fluid by beating their tail-like flagella as if swimming the breaststroke. These structures and type of swimming pattern are similar to that of cilia in the airway. By understanding how these algae alter their swim pattern, he hopes to better understand how other structures like cilia are influenced by fluids with different properties.

Following graduation, Boyang plans to continue in academic research by getting additional training through a post-doctoral position. He believes it is important to communicate your work and interests to a wider audience and to try to always reach out to inspire others. We’re glad Boyang is a part of our Open Labs team and is inspiring the future generation of scientists!

Want to read more about Boyang's research on fluid dynamics? Check out his paper here and an article about his research here! If you have any questions for Boyang or about Open Labs, please email us at! Follow us on Twitter and like us on Facebook!

Open Labs Spotlight: Matt Grobis

Open Labs Member Matt Grobis

Open Labs Member Matt Grobis

When asking a scientist what motivated them to pursue their career in science, it’s common to hear that the scientist always just enjoyed science and decided to focus their career goals in that direction. Matt Grobis, on the other hand, never considered pursuing science as a career until he had an eye-opening experience in his biology class during his junior year of high school in Vernon Hills, Illinois. Until this class, he wanted to be an author and particularly enjoyed his English classes, but he soon discovered he equally enjoyed learning about the natural world that surrounds us. After beginning college at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign as an English major, Matt soon transferred to integrative biology to continue studying how the natural world works while still pursuing his writing interests.

Matt is a firm believer in not getting discouraged when things don’t go according to plan. While Illinois was not his top choice for college, he had an incredible experience and took advantage of the many opportunities there. Despite graduating college with uncertainty about the next steps, a sudden stroke of luck appeared two weeks later with a scholarship he’d been waiting on.  Matt also applies this mentality to his current research. He explains that “data collection and experiments rarely work out the way you imagine. It all looks smooth from a distance, with one step logically leading to the next. But it’s often not!” As a graduate student at Princeton in the Ecology and Evolutionary Biology department, Matt studies the behavior of animal groups and, specifically, how schools of fish relay information through their group to avoid predators. Matt uses quantitative approaches such as computer programming to address his research questions in the Couzin lab

Although he didn’t consider himself good at math or computers prior to entering graduate school, Matt’s research required him to dive into programming head on and he now truly appreciates the vast potential programming provides him: better data visualizations, more intricate data analysis, faster processing; the list goes on. “Don’t be afraid to try learning something intimidating!” Matt says. “You never know where it will take you.”

Matt loves research but he’s keeping future doors open. “If the past taught me anything, it’s that life doesn’t always go according to plan. I’d love to do research as a professor at a fancy university. But I’d also be really excited to work as a data scientist at a company, or to focus on delivering informative and interesting lectures as a professor at a small liberal arts college. We’ll see what happens.” In the meantime, one of Matt’s biggest priorities is communicating science in a way that is accessible to everyone. To that end, Matt maintains a blog called The Headbanging Behaviorist and is a co-founder and director of the Open Labs branch at Princeton. He is also a co-founder and the managing editor for Highwire Earth, a blog on sustainable development.

Thanks to Matt for all his hard work with the Princeton branch of Open Labs and for sharing his story and advice with us! If you have any questions for Matt or about Open Labs in general, please send us an email at Also be sure to follow us on Facebook and Twitter for more up to date information on events and news!

Open Labs Member Spotlight: Cait Williamson

Open labs member Cait williamson

Open labs member Cait williamson

Cait Williamson, a graduate student at Columbia University, understands the importance of being a well-rounded student. Throughout her schooling, this same theme emerges- trying something different helped her identify her passions. During her high school years in California, she took numerous classes including math, history, literature, physics and biology to discover her talent and love for the biological sciences. Cait tested her tolerance for a different climate and culture by traveling across the country to attend undergrad in New York at Columbia University. At college, Cait was planning on majoring in Biology on a pre-med track until she took a psychology class and decided to major in Neuroscience and Behavior. However, it wasn’t until getting experience in both a lab and volunteering at a hospital that she realized she wanted to be a scientist. Thinking creatively to solve interesting problems that affect society was the path she was truly interested in pursuing.

Cait loves the variety and opportunities to try new things in graduate school as well. In Cait’s research in the Curley lab, where she studies what happens behaviorally and biologically in the brain when a social network is changed, she uses a variety of methods to understand behavioral, social and biological questions in a creative way! But Cait doesn’t spend all of her time in lab and she recommends to find other fun things to do to help unwind! In fact, in her free time she runs marathons and is currently training for her fourth! Go Cait!

Her well-balanced approach to training so far is one she recommends for young students- get diverse set of experiences and try lots of new things to decide what you might be interested in doing! And even if you are late in your high school or college experience with no idea what to do next, she stresses not to panic because everything will work out in the end! Cait is following her own advice when trying to determine what she wants to do for a career. She is keeping the door open for several potential careers including teaching (which she loves) or maybe even data analytics, consulting, or working for a private company. Her story is just one of many other examples of people being open to new opportunities as they present themselves. We’re glad she is a part of the Open Labs team where she gets to share all of her experience and advice with the next generation of scientists!

If you have any questions for Cait, other members of the Open Labs team, or if you want more information on how to attend or get involved with upcoming events, contact us at Also, be sure to follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram for latest Open Labs and science updates!


2016 Spring Science Cafe at Yale was a success!

On Sunday, April 10th, Yale Open Labs hosted another successful Science Cafe event! Over 100 students and parents, along with dozens of graduate student volunteers, took time out of their busy schedules to listen to four fantastic science talks given by graduate students who perform cutting edge science at Yale.

Our first speaker, Charles Brown, is a PhD student in Physics and gave an outstanding talk on quantum uncertainty. This talk was followed up with an exciting story presented by Pathology PhD student, Molly Gale, about a successful targeted cancer therapy used in the treatment of breast cancer. Our third speaker was Andrew Barentine who gave us an overview of very "cool" work he did involving use of super cold atoms. Finally, Michelle Hutchings, a PhD student in Chemistry, told us about the road to how scientists like her go about identifying the many potential uses of tiny microbes.

Following the talks, students got to ask the speakers and other volunteer graduate students about science, their research, as well as college and careers. There were some great questions asked following the talks as well as at the small group discussions. The students, parents, and graduate students all learned a lot from each other and had a great time!

Thank you to all of the students and parents who attended the Yale Science Cafe! Without you, this event wouldn't be possible! A special thank you to all of the speakers. graduate student volunteers, and Pathways to Science team for helping out and making this event such a success! We can't wait for future Science Cafes and Open Labs events!

Want more information and up-to-date news? Follow us on Twitter at @YaleOpenLabs or on Facebook at


Check out the Open Labs Introductory Video!

Are you interested in learning more about Open Labs? Watch our introductory video about Open Labs and to get an idea about why we love science! We can't wait to share this passion with you! If you want to get more involved, explore our website to get more information on upcoming events like Science Cafe or laboratory tours or to get more in depth information about a topic you might have heard about at an event. We look forward to seeing you at upcoming events and hope you enjoy your journey in science!