Ma studies the germ that causes tuberculosis to understand how it reacts to different drugs.
What do you do? I am a scientist in Dr. David Sherman’s lab at the Center for Infectious Disease Research [in Seattle], where we study the germ that causes tuberculosis, the deadliest infectious disease. TB is incredibly hard to treat, requiring four drugs taken continuously for six months — in the best-case scenario. To improve therapy, we want to understand how the bacteria respond to different drugs. To do this, we grow the bacteria in our high-containment biosafety lab using tubes of specially formulated soup; we measure changes in the bacteria when we drug them; and we program computers to help us learn the rules that govern how the bacteria behave under these conditions.
How did you get started in that field? Science was my favorite subject in high school, and after my senior year, I had the opportunity to participate in a summer research program at LA Biomed. I worked with researchers who studied the breathing patterns of patients with chronic lung disease. This gave me a first-hand look at what scientists did on a day-to-day basis, and made me realize that research was what I wanted to do as a career.
What’s a typical day like? One of the great things about this job is that there are very few typical days. On some days, I shuffle around the lab in overalls and a filtered breathing mask to tend to my sloshing tubes of tuberculosis. On other days, I am sitting at a computer, either making sense of previous measurements using math and computer models or planning for what to measure next.
What surprises people about your work? About half of my job involves communication and writing. We report what we learn from previous work by writing articles and giving presentations, and we write grant applications to support our future work. Given that fewer than 1 in 5 grant applications succeed, and that most labs need multiple successes to fund their work, this is a continuous process.
What’s the best part of the job? Researching how cells behave is a bit like trying to complete a complex jigsaw puzzle with most pieces hidden in sand. With each discovery comes the joy of uncovering a new jigsaw piece, appreciating how perfectly it fits with and informs the rest of the puzzle, and marveling at the beauty of the overarching image of nature that emerges.