UW-Madison graduate student receives prestigious HHMI fellowship

by Jillian Slaight

ZiziPisithkulWhen she visited UW-Madison as a prospective student, Tippapha “Zizi” Pisithkul immediately noticed something that set the school apart. “They look happier,” she observed of professors and graduate students, “They look like they like their work.” Zizi now claims the same for herself as a Ph.D. candidate in Cellular and Molecular Biology and recent recipient of a prestigious Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) fellowship.

The secret to her positive state of mind? Zizi jokes that her fifth-floor lab enjoys a view of Lake Mendota. All kidding aside, she points to the spirit of cooperation within her department as an integral factor of her success so far. As she explains it, her laboratory’s principal investigator, Daniel Amador-Noguez, feels more like a colleague than a “boss.” They both arrived on campus in the fall of 2013 and since that time the pair has collaborated on multiple projects, some funded by the Department of Energy. Their current investigation of biofilms contributes to a broader body of research that may help address bacterial resistance to antibiotics.

Under the guidance of Amador-Noguez, Zizi has learned how to navigate “process,” or as she puts it, “deciding what interests you, how to tackle the problem, how to interpret your data, and how to communicate your results.”  By her own admission, she lacked those skills upon arriving at UW-Madison with a B.A. from Bowdoin College in Maine. There, she enjoyed extensive laboratory experience, but still depended on her PI to analyze each experiment’s outcome. Accordingly, independence ranks as the principal asset she has gained in graduate school. Generating data alone does not make successful science, she insists. Critical thinking is key in both generating and understanding data.

Beside being independent, Zizi stresses the importance of communication. With numerous publications and conferences under her belt, she has learned how to persuasively present her findings. “I didn’t imagine I would be able to do that when I was an undergraduate,” she comments. That talent for communication helped secure her the HHMI grant that will fund her continued research on biofilms into the 2016-2017 school year. Even farther afield, she hopes not only to communicate results, but techniques as well. Zizi dreams of establishing her own laboratory in Thailand, introducing her native country to the field of metabolomics.

In the meantime, she remains one of the contented graduate students she met as a prospective student years ago. Echoing a promise Professor John Denu made during that visit, she says, “You can’t go wrong here!”

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