Graduate from microbiology PhD program launches career in immunology

December 1, 2017

Editor’s note: This is part of a series of profiles for fall 2017 commencement. See more graduates here.

Constant discovery and innovation. Louis Schoettle, recent graduate of the School of Life Sciences microbiology PhD program. Photo by Louis Schoettle Download Full Image

That’s how Louis Schoettle describes why he chose to study immunology as part of Arizona State University’s microbiology PhD program from the School of Life Sciences, even though when he started his graduate career, he wondered whether he could take on such a difficult field. He also wondered whether working across multiple laboratories to master many experimental techniques and skills would be possible.

What he found was surprising, even to a dedicated student like Schoettle.

“It wasn’t learning a new field of science that turned out to be the most difficult aspect of being a graduate student,” said Schoettle, who hails from Portsmouth, Ohio. “What many people don’t realize about graduate school is that while classes are a part of the process, they are in fact a relatively small part. Conducting research, writing proposals, grants and manuscripts, mentoring undergraduate researchers and teaching take up more hours of any given day than actual coursework. Learning to balance all of the aspects of being a graduate student is a skill all to itself, and it is something you are forced to learn extremely early on in your career.”

Question: What was your “aha” moment, when you realized you wanted to study the field you chose?

Answer: Whenever I tell people that I’m an immunologist, I usually either get the “What’s an immunologist?” look, or the “Why immunology?” question. The answer I give them is always the same. Immunology is an extremely young science. In fact, we’ve only really understood what T cells are and how they work for the last 20 years. Every month someone learns a new fundamental truth about how our immune system works. It’s truly an amazing field to be a part of right now.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: Believe it or not, I never actually planned on attending ASU. In fact, the only reason I even applied was because my master’s adviser pushed me to. During my PhD interviewing process, I had all but signed on the dotted line to go elsewhere. However, I received an offer to interview with ASU and decided to make the trip.

During an interview with my would-be adviser, professor Joe Blattman with the School of Life Sciences, we discussed his lab’s work in T cell immunology and he broached the possibility of a project utilizing a brand-new technology called DNA origami. He talked with me about the possibility of training in multiple labs under multiple disciplines, learning fundamental aspects of immunology and molecular biology, and doing things that had never been done before. It was too exciting to pass up.

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?

A: Write early and often. Ask your adviser to include you on grants, proposals and manuscripts to get as much practice as possible. Try to present at least once a year at a national or international meeting to get your name and work out there and practice your presentation skills.

Finally, ask questions! Ask senior members of your lab, your adviser and your committee members questions as often as you can. I spent almost an entire year trying to solve a problem only to find out that one of my committee members had a solution the entire time. Graduate school is no place for stubbornness!

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: During the last year, my adviser and I have developed and launched a spin-out company called Gemneo Bioscience, based on the technology I was working on during my research. Following graduation, I am taking over as vice president of research and products, working on improving our technology and applying it to new systems.

Q: Are there any special friendships with faculty or classmates that helped you get from point A to point B?

A: I have had great relationships with many of my fellow grad students, but I could never have made it through without a few of them specifically. Megan McAffee and Susan Holechek were the first two members of Joe’s lab. They helped build the lab and really brought me in under their wing and showed me the ropes during my first two years. I still remember my first day in the lab Joe asking me to “Clone the P14 TCR genes”, and me walking out of his office and asking Megan “What is a P14 TCR gene and how do I clone it?!” It’s really sink-or-swim those first few years of school, and without Megan and Susan, there is no doubt that I would have struggled mightily.

Once I progressed to becoming a senior member of the lab, the roles began to reverse. Over the last two or three years I have developed new friendships with current members of the lab, and without their help, the stress of trying to defend would be unbearable. I would specifically like to give a giant thank-you to Kavita Manhas. She is going to make a great immunologist someday, but is now and will always be an even better friend.

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: All scientists deep down are a bit selfish, myself included, in that we believe that our personal research is of utmost importance. It’s what drives our work and pushes us to move forward. That being said, if someone handed me $40 million I would put half of it toward the progress our company is making in identifying rare immune cells capable of fighting cancer and making these cells adaptable for any patient in need.

The other half I would reserve for an endowment, to be used as an incentive to recruit high-quality graduate students to ASU to help build the immunology community that has been growing since my first year here. The battle against cancer and disease is ever evolving, as we develop new and improved technology and therapies the diseases evolve and escape. We need more and more researchers to continue this fight, which means more and more grad students to take over the reins. I truly believe ASU is building something special, and recruitment of great students will be the foundation of continued success.

Sandra Leander

Assistant Director of Media Relations, ASU Knowledge Enterprise


ASU Online student perseveres through difficult pregnancy to earn degree

December 1, 2017

Editor’s note: This is part of a series of profiles for fall 2017 commencement. See more graduates here.

Arizona native Caite Buntin did not intend to study online. But in 2015, the mother of two found out she was pregnant with her third child during her second semester at Arizona State University's Tempe campus. Graduating ASU student Caite Buntin / Courtesy photo ASU graduate Caite Buntin. Download Full Image

“I was attending on-campus classes at that time,” Buntin said. “I’d spend six to seven hours vomiting and then walk to campus. I [sometimes] had to leave class for a few minutes and go into the restroom. My professors were gracious about it, thank goodness, but I knew I couldn’t continue on-campus classes in that condition.”

Buntin switched to ASU Online classes to continue her English major with the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences in hopes of easing her physical stresses. This helped, but just barely. She experienced pregnancy complications and was hospitalized during a summer school term: “I ended up taking my French 201 midterm in the hospital,” she said. “I was sick the entire pregnancy.”

Buntin’s baby, whom she named Laurel Lance (comic nerds: take note), was born via Caesarean section at 37 weeks, weighing just 4 pounds.

“She was and is a fighter," Buntin said.

Buntin persevered — through a move to Salt Lake City (where she now resides with her family), through recovery from surgery and complications, and through the myriad adjustments that come with having a new baby and young children.

She graduates this December with her bachelor's degree in English.

“Here I am. My daughters are ages 7, 6 and 1. I am graduating from ASU summa cum laude, and I am starting to receive opportunities to gain experience in the fields that I am most interested in pursuing," Buntin said.

Was it easy?

"Absolutely not," she said. "My doctors told my husband (who by the way, has been my biggest supporter and part of the reason I have been able to keep going forward) that I was close to dying if they had not done the C-section, and that really puts things into perspective. If anyone reads this story and takes anything away from it, I want it to be that hard work really pays off.”

Buntin answered a few more questions about her journey to her ASU degree.

Question: What was your “aha” moment, when you realized you wanted to study in your field? 

Answer: I was 5 years old. I was being homeschooled at the time, and I was learning how to spell my name. Once I understood how the alphabet gave me the tools to write things, I started scribbling things down. When I was 6 years old I wrote my first story, which was “Cops and Their Donuts.” It was about two cops going into a coffee shop and dunking their donuts. I don’t remember what they spoke about, but I do remember it was only a page long with 6-year-old terrible scrawl. Still, I was proud of it, and from that moment on I was a writing machine. My bachelor’s in English is only going to propel me down that path. It may take more hard work, but I’ve already put in so much effort that I know I will get there eventually.

Q: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you, that changed your perspective?

A: Attending university is a double-edged sword. Not only do you have to have an open mind to learning things that aren’t comfortable, you also have to be open to hearing the [perspectives] of other people. This can come from in the classroom or just dealing with the personnel you have to deal with when setting up your student status. When handling responsibility becomes frustrating, you have to remember to keep calm, lean on others you have around you, put on your determination hat and get things done. The most valuable experience that has come from ASU, for me, has been through my poetry and fiction workshops. I’ll give a shoutout to Rebecca Byrkit, who was my professor for both intermediate workshops I completed. She gave me so many valuable skills, skills that I already had when I started, but that grew and developed from careful attention to detail and exploration with other students. If I can give any advice to anyone, it’s to take a deep breath, understand that it won’t be easy, and then keep putting your best foot forward.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: When I was a teenager, my dad was getting his master’s degree at ASU. Although I had spouted off other college ideas at the time, when it finally came time for me to go into university, I decided to create a family tradition. I became a mother at a young age, and for quite some time I put my education on hold. When I decided to come back into it, not only was ASU feasible location-wise, but I already had experienced parts of ASU life growing up with my dad.

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?

A: Don’t give up. Work hard. I’m not one to say that it’s all going to be work that you like doing or subjects you want to learn about it. There have been a handful of classes that I haven’t done well in because my lack of motivation drove me into a corner. Sometimes, though, regardless of how frustrating or time-consuming the work is, you have to keep telling yourself that the choice you made to do this is for the bigger picture.

Later on, when you leave ASU, where will you go? What’s all of the hard work for? Why try to maintain the best grades you can have? Do grades matter in the real world? I’m going to tell you that yes, they do matter. Not only in furthering your education, but great grades and great GPAs speak to employers about your quality of work and work ethic. Just remember that when you don’t want to put in the time and you want to BS on a paper (which I have done, don’t get me wrong), the effort you put into your work shows up later when you apply for the jobs you want after graduation.

Q: What was your favorite spot on campus, whether for studying, meeting friends or just thinking about life?

A: Gammage Auditorium. There is a little nook of trees in a grassy area next to the bus stop. I used to sit there and wait for the Orbit bus and read.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: I have already sent a resume to a few companies for internships in editing and publishing. I have no work experience, but my GPA and work ethic here at ASU has helped give me a set of skills that I think are valuable to companies offering these types of positions unpaid. I am currently an assistant with Waldorf Publishing, and I may have some other opportunities pop up as well.

Right now it’s all about getting that experience. Even though money is great, the experience is valuable because I can take it later on and show someone else that I have what it takes to be paid to do a job that I want to do. While the end goal is to be a writer — and write for myself and be a published author — I’m willing to work my way up to that point by being humble and starting at the bottom.

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: Money won’t fix the biggest issue our planet has, which is hate and ignorance. If we want to help the planet, we need to help ourselves, and if we’re going to help ourselves, we need to stop placing hate and blame on people with opposing opinions. It’s important for people to have opinions, to speak up, and to argue for what they feel is right; but it’s also important to listen and to compromise. Now, if I did indeed have $40 million, I’d probably sink that into the ocean, because our Earth is primarily made up of the oceans, and we really need to get proactive about helping detox our poison and trash out of it.

Kristen LaRue-Sandler

senior marking & communications specialist, Department of English