During her first two years as an undergraduate studying biochemistry at Tulane University, Briana Santo was still undecided about whether to go to medical school to become a physician, or to concentrate on scientific research.
Once she got involved in bench work, her future became clear.
“I got involved in my undergraduate research, and I loved it. I loved the puzzle and the challenges associated with synthetic chemistry,” Santo says.
That love of research led her to the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, where she is a doctoral student in computational cell biology, anatomy and pathology (CCBAP) in the Department of Pathology and Anatomical Sciences.
“In CCBAP you’re bringing together multiple scientific fields in order to study disease in a whole new way,” Santo says.
Santo works in the laboratory of her mentor, Pinaki Sarder, PhD, assistant professor of pathology and anatomical sciences.
“When Dr. Sarder sees that you like a challenge, he gives you something he knows you’ll find exciting — but that’s also challenging — and then he pushes you. He has a way of assessing the extent to which you can be pushed and your capacity to learn,” Santo says. “For someone like me who loves a challenge, it’s infectious. You work harder, and the more you learn the more excited you get. He knows how to create momentum.”
Her research led to a nomination in 2019 for the prestigious National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program.
Her research project involved developing artificial intelligence-assisted tools that were paired with kidney biopsy data to study a particular cell type in the kidney and the relationship of injury to that cell with an incidence and progression of kidney disease, more specifically diabetic kidney disease.
“It was a great experience. I learned the challenges that come with writing a grant, explaining to people why what you do is important and why it’s of value,” says Santo, who grew up in Rhinebeck in the northern Hudson Valley of New York State. “The whole experience was really tremendous.”
“The whole idea of our doctoral program is to train us along the lines of our primary education — like mine in biology and biochemistry — but at the same time provide additional education in machine learning, programming and computational image analysis,” Santo says. “In this way I can have the full skill set to meet the aims and the goals of the department.”
She has become immersed in the research.
“We’re merging the general knowledge of biology and biochemistry with engineering and artificial intelligence to study disease in a whole new way for the future of medicine,” Santo says. “I’ve been completely consumed by my research — in the most positive way. I love it.”
Her educational background and the skills she has gained coding have been a boon for the lab.
“She is the ideal student,” Sarder says. “She has filled in the gaps in our lab between engineering and biology.”
Santo could see herself one day mentoring other doctoral students, as Sarder has mentored her.
“Right now my plan is to continue to pursue a career in research and hopefully to have a lab of my own someday. I love to teach and I’ve already had some opportunities to be a teaching assistant for classes at UB,” Santo says. “I could certainly see myself pursuing a research and faculty position very much in alignment with what my principal investigator does now, or other PIs in our department.”