Commencement Student Spotlight - Elizabeth Leary '09 PhD'18

May 27, 2018
Charlotte Merzbacher

When asked why she pursued a PhD, Elizabeth Leary recalls her first job out of undergrad: “My boss was always wanting me to ask her questions, wanting me to design my own experiments, treating me not just as a tech, but as someone who wanted to learn and was curious.”  Still, she realized that she could have had a very different experience. “I wanted to become the sort of person driving those experiments on a larger scale,” she says.

Dr. Leary recently defended her thesis on high-throughput quantitative imaging of 3D cell spheroids and published a paper on her results.  “Traditionally all sorts of biomedical fields use 2D cell monolayers, but cells attached to plastic don’t really recapitulate how our body is - we’re not a 2D thing.” says Dr. Leary.  3D spheroids can solve some of those physiological inaccuracies, but their multiple cell layers can also be a challenge to image accurately and quantify. The Morgan lab, where she works, has patented and commercialized the 3D PetriDish®, a silicone mold used to form agarose gels for 3D cell culture.  The technology is available for 12 well and 24 well plates, but to move to a high throughput system, Dr. Leary had to redesign the molds for a standard 96-well plate. They then tested the molds to show consistent spheroid size and shape. Before moving on to biological assays, Dr. Leary started with characterizing the changes in imaging as a function of radius. “We need[ed] to look at how a standard, uniform-labeled signal will be lost just by the physics of imaging,” says Dr. Leary. She uses the Opera Phenix, high-throughput, high-content confocal microscope to image the spheroids.  

Dr. Leary went to Brown for her undergraduate degree, but she took three years off before returning for graduate school.  “I feel like taking a few years off is good,” she says. “It lets you see what you really want. Grad school is a big commitment.”  When she interviewed at Brown, she enjoyed talking to Dr. Morgan, one of whose classes she had taken as an undergrad. “I already knew I loved Providence,” she said.  “I thought, I really like your technology, what you’re studying is interesting to me, I liked you as a teacher, and people seem really happy in your lab.” She began work in the BioMed Center, where many of her fellow Biomedical Engineering PhD students were on her floor.  “At first it was weird being back at Brown without my undergrad friends, but within a month or two that loneliness was gone because I met a really great group of people who really cared about each other.” She enjoyed the collaborative and friendly nature of the program. “Unlike many other schools, Brown’s not really that competitive with each other.  We all do different things, so I could tell anyone my research in the program and ask for their advice and we’re all tangentially - we all know each other’s research without being afraid that someone else would steal or swoop your research. Everyone has their own niche, everyone has their own project, and their success doesn’t equal my failure. If they’re successful, that’s great.”

She speaks of days spent helping her peers work through flow cytometry questions and looking at microscopy images - and mornings spent fueling her experiments with coffee.  “Everyone always joked around because I always brought a huge jug of coffee in the morning, and I would drink it all. I would always get in and do my experiments in the morning, be it making some agarose hydrogels, or seeding them, or imaging my experiments.”  Since she couldn’t eat or drink in lab, she would spend afternoons at a table outside the lab on her floor. “For my first three years here, I was just glued to that table all afternoon. It was my throne. Everyone knew where they could find me, because i’d be there, analyzing data.”  

The days could be long, and the data analysis challenging, but Dr. Leary continues to find aspects of her research that fascinate her.  “Make sure that you find the research interesting,” she counsels. “It’s going to be a long 5 to 6 years to finish, so you want to make sure you’re passionate about it.  If you don’t have that passion going in, you’re not going to find it. I got lucky - I really liked my boss and my research.” Outside of the lab, she spends time with friends and her dog, who help her relax after a long day doing research.  “Happiness counts.” she says. “I had a really good cohort of people to bounce ideas off of, or if I needed a break, to just talk about TV - it was a good group of people.”

For now, Dr. Leary is spending the summer finishing up some of her work in the Morgan lab, and then planning on moving into industry.  Her advice for new graduate students? “By the end of your graduate career, you should be confident about what you’re researching. You’re the person who knows the most about your research, so be confident.”