Then: 1998 Beckman Scholars Program Award Recipient, California Institute of Technology
Now: Assistant Professor of Chemistry and Molecular & Cell Biology, University of California, Berkeley
AMBF: Prior to college, were you curious about a career in science?
Ming Chen Hammond (MH): Yes.
AMBF: What exposure did you have to knowing what research in a laboratory would be like?
MH: As a high school student, I spent a summer commuting into Baltimore city to shadow researchers in a lab at UMD Baltimore medical center that worked on studying the mu opioid receptor.
AMBF: When you heard about the Beckman Scholar opportunity, what inspired you to apply?
MH: My research advisor, Barbara Imperiali, told me about the program and encouraged me to apply.
AMBF: What was your research focused on? What were the results?
MH: For the Beckman Scholar application, I conceived of an independent project to identify the active site subunit of the enzyme, oligosaccharyl transferase, by synthesizing a peptide inhibitor carrying a biotin affinity tag and a metal-chelating sequence that Thomas Kodadek had shown could be used for site-specific crosslinking. It turned out that this project was a “chemical biology” project, before I had even heard of the field of chemical biology. As a Beckman Scholar, I carried out the chemical synthesis, the enzyme purification (from fresh pig liver delivered from a farm!), the activity assays, then the crosslinking experiments to ID the active site. We didn’t publish the results, but years later I read a paper that confirmed my results using a different method. I won the Caltech SURF (summer undergraduate research fellowship) speaking competition for my talk about this work, the chemistry department award (Arie J. Haagen-Smit Memorial award) for my research, and I received an HHMI predoctoral fellowship (that I accepted) and NSF graduate fellowship (that I declined). I was also featured in a Times magazine article about Caltech at the time.
AMBF: What was the most memorable part about working with your mentor or working in the laboratory?
MH: Again, what was unique about my research experience as a Beckman Scholar was having an independent project. When my mentor moved to MIT in the summer before my senior year, the Beckman Scholarship allowed me to spend 10 weeks in Cambridge, MA to finish my project. Moving to a new city and a new institution opened my eyes a lot, even before grad school.
AMBF: How did the experience change your thinking about science and conducting research?
MH: This experience was the first time that I had the freedom and the opportunity to conceive of and execute my own research idea. This was very empowering, and I realized that independent research was what I want to do the rest of my life, and it solidified my desire to become a professor. Also, many of the ways I run my lab is inspired by the level of organization and the camaraderie I experienced in the Imperiali lab.
AMBF: Where did you go after graduation and where are you now?
MH: I went to the Chemistry Ph.D. program at UC Berkeley. I am currently an Assistant Professor in Chemistry and Molecular & Cell Biology at UC Berkeley. I am recipient of the BWF Career Award at the Scientific Interface and the NIH Director’s New Innovator Award. My lab develops assays that are useful for high-throughput drug screening inside and outside of cells, and we apply these assays to understand how chemical signals affect bacterial behavior. I have published many papers and have applied for patents, several of which are licensed or under evaluation for licensing.
AMBF: Do you have any advice for undergraduates considering a research career?
MH: I have advised and mentored a lot of undergraduates, as majors advisor, teacher, and research advisor. For those in other research labs, I gently push them to talk with their professor at least once a semester. For those in my research lab, I encourage them to consider coming up with their own projects after they have learned the ropes.
AMBF: Did you meet Dr. Beckman in person, and if so, what was most memorable about meeting him?
MH: I met Dr. Beckman in person at the first Beckman Scholar Symposium.
AMBF: Any final thoughts?
MH: I just want to express my tremendous gratitude and appreciation to Dr. Beckman, his family, and the Scholars program. The support of my research mentor and the Beckman Scholars Program gave me the confidence and the skills to pursue an academic and research career.