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Erika Angle, Ph.D. Blog

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Once Upon a Crocodile...

Posted by Dr. Erika Ebbel Angle on Oct 22, 2018 11:45:29 AM
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Our research for the past 14 years has been focused on understanding disease, helping people to learn about their health, and ultimately providing people with the tools to be pro-active in having a better quality of life. 


My fascination with disease, health, and wellness dates back much further – to the day I encountered crocodiles when I was eleven.


My parents gave me a choice when I was in 6th grade; go on a trip with my fellow classmates to Washington DC, or, go on a family trip to Cancun. They couldn’t afford both. Not surprisingly for an eleven-year-old, I chose the trip to Cancun. During that trip we visited a crocodile farm. I learned that when crocodiles are mortally wounded they could flip over onto their backs, slip into a coma and die. 


For some reason, that had a profound effect on me and I remembered this fact about crocodile mortality when I returned home. Additionally, I read the book “Jurassic Park” which had just been published and “The Body at War,” which began to spark my curiosity in Biology, microbiology, and Chemistry. Not long after all of these events, our science teacher informed us that it was time to do a science fair project for science class. I didn’t know what topic to pick initially, but curiosity led me in a direction based on my previous recent experiences. I wondered if cells also commit suicide when infected with viruses, similar to what happens with crocodiles. This became the topic of my science fair project. 



It was necessary to look for an external laboratory where I could conduct my experiments. After dozens of unanswered calls, I found a mentor Michael Nachtigall at a local public health laboratory who was willing to spend afternoons teaching me and working with me. 


After finding out that the least lethal virus their lab carried was the Herpes simplex virus type 1 (the virus that causes cold sores), I decided this would be the virus I would work with. I designed my own experiments, my mentor Michael guiding me, but never passing judgement. He helped me to have thoughts around the experiments, but never gave me the answers.


At the end, I found out that there was no simple way to tell the difference between whether the cells were dying because they were infected by viruses or because they were committing suicide. My mentor never told me any of this – he let me figure it out for myself. I remember being extremely excited during this first experience working in a lab. Ultimately, I was hooked!


My project was submitted for the school science fair, but didn’t win. However, that was my first experience working in a lab, and I loved it. There were also other invaluable lessons. 


  • Ask for help 
I needed a mentor to guide me, despite many calls, no one was willing. After dozens of attempts I finally found one person, Michael Nachtigall, the director of a local public health lab. He was willing to help me.

  • Don’t be afraid to learn 
My mentor sent me home with a bunch of textbooks on microbiology and immunology. I was intimidated, but stuck with it. He also offered to help answer questions. I took him up on those offers.

  • Be patient 
I had to wait for numerous hours after setting up my experiments and frequently had to re-do the experiments because they didn’t work.

  • Don’t be afraid to make mistakes 

Built into being a scientist is the challenge of having experiments not work and wanting to throw in the towel. There is a reason for the "re" in the word “re-search”.  
I learned that things not working is a normal part of the research process. This process is just as important as the end result. It was through trial and error that I also realized the value of perseverance.


  •  Accomplishing hard things could be difficult 
I often wish I was a super genius and that everything could come to me naturally, but that has never been the case. I have always had to study and work very hard to achieve my goals. 

I’ve also determined that wanting to accomplish “hard things” can also be exciting, and provides great satisfaction when you’re successful. You just have to stick with it!


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