Q&A with Quenton Bubb

By Barnabas Odeyomi

He’s down to earth, loves jazz, was introduced to biophysics through “Fringe,” and every now and then plays video games. He learned about parabolas playing Halo 3 and says the game was a critical part of his development. He plays basketball and can dunk, but you won’t hear that from him.

What’s more is that this upcoming fall he will be contributing to biophysics research in Cambridge as a Chemistry graduate student, thanks to the Marshall Scholarship. Quenton Bubb is a Biophysics major of the Hopkins class of 2016, graduating a semester early, and on the MD/ PHD track.  He was awarded the United Negro College Fund / Merck (UNCF/Merck) Scholarship his junior year and the Marshall Scholarship his senior year, resulting from his contribution to research that seeks to understand the process of protein folding – a process that is relevant to diseases such as ALS(Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis), Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, diabetes and Creutzfeldt-Jakob’s disease.

He may be an exemplary student, Quenton values a balanced life (especially a good night’s rest),   enjoys socializing, tries not to do anything last minute, takes regular days off to keep from burning out, and gives back to the community through science mentoring in a local school. He’s always quick to highlight the people that were key to his progress including his parents and various professors. This interview explores his research journey through Hopkins, and reveals a bit about how he got to where he is today and a bit about his future direction.

Barnabas Odeyomi: On the Student Voices Video where you talk about your work, the last thing you said was “The extent at which Hopkins amplified my passion about certain things, that truly surprised me and in retrospect it’s amazing how far I’ve come since coming here as a freshman.” How far have you come in your own eyes, and what passions were amplified?

Quenton Bubb: Not many biophysics majors come here because of biophysics, but that was the case with me. My senior year in high school I was interested in how biology and physics could be combined so I chose biophysics. I didn’t really know the problems that the department addressed. This department in particular is world class in protein folding specifically. I hadn’t really thought about that problem at all before. I remember learning about it for the first time and I was like “wow it’s a peculiar problem.” Now it’s like religion to me. I want to continue studying it. I look back to walking on campus for the first time. There’s no way I could have imagined that I would become so interested in protein folding,  how it applies to disease, and how thermodynamics can describe these processes and that’s all a result of the mentorship and the support that the department gave in nurturing my interest. I think I’ve come a long way

Also, I don’t think I would have been able to comfortably call myself an adult my freshmen year. But now I think I’m an ok adult, still young but I feel much more mature than I did my freshman year.

BO: Your summer after freshman year you were sponsored by the National Institute of Health (NIH)? Tell me more about that.

QB: The NIH has a program with the biophysical society and a summer course in biophysics – it’s a 2 component course. Half the time you spend in lectures learning from different principal investigators from all over the country talking about their field of interest, and the other half you’re in the lab doing research, so I spent that summer working with Saskia Neher. She studied lipases. Lipases are proteins that catalyze lipid reactions, so it breaks down the fat essentially. LipY has been implicated to be important for tuberculosis survival. So I screened a library of inhibitors against LipY to find which ones were most effective and I used some biophysics to analyze the kinetics of that process, because that’s what drug companies do in order to assess how strong an inhibitor is. Hopefully those will be used as templates for future drug development if it is indeed a target in the virulence

BO: How did you hear about the program?

QB: At Hopkins you don’t have an advisor for your major until your sophomore year. But I had been meeting with Karen Fleming, since almost day one freshman year. She was like “Hey you should do this program- you’re interested in research, it’s a great opportunity to get into it.” She didn’t tell me though that I was a little bit young (Chuckles) to go into this program. I was like 19 at the time and the next youngest person was 22. The oldest guy was 32.

BO: How did it impact you as a person and your interests?

QB: When I came here, I was straight MD- I wanted to be a surgeon. I participated in this program and learned about all these problems and implications to these problems. I spoke to one of my mentors…having trouble choosing between M.D and M.D/PHD. He said, “If you want to be able to count how many people’s lives you saved by the end of your career, you should be an M.D. If you want to count how many people you saved in your career, plus have no idea about the millions that you may have impacted from your research, become an MD/PHD.” So I was like… I’m going to go with the latter (chuckles). Obviously he was exaggerating a bit, but contributing to science is a cool goal and I think I would have been dissatisfied with not being in the lab during my graduate career, because it’s a protected time for you to develop those skills. So that’s when I figured out that I wanted to do MD/PHD.

It’s mainly the mentorship that resulted. I wouldn’t have known about this program if it hadn’t been for Karen; I wouldn’t have solidified this goal if it hadn’t been for Dr. Barry Lance.

BO: The summer after your sophomore year was when you got the research assistant position in Karen’s lab?  How did you land this?

QB: Joel Schildbach runs a summer program that’s meant to give students from other schools without research programs a chance to do research here at Hopkins. He likes to have one or two Hopkins students in the program to help them get oriented. But it wasn’t as if I was a superior or anything, I was also just doing research, but I was funded through that program to do research here. So I started in Karen’s lab that summer.

BO: So, tell me about your research with Dr. Karen Fleming.

QB: Okay. So, the lab studies membrane proteins. E.coli in particular is characterized by having an inner and outer membrane…we know a lot about how proteins get inside the inner membrane, but the process for proteins getting into the outer membrane is not as trivial. So the problem is that these proteins are very sticky in the sense that if they’re in water, then they tend to clump up with themselves and they can’t fold into the outer membrane. So the cell has evolved this machinery to chaperone the process of helping these membrane proteins get from the inner membrane to the outer membrane. I’m working on a particular chaperone called “FKpa” and for some reason this protein has been implicated to become a better chaperone at higher temperatures. I’m just trying to understand why that is.

OB: In one of articles about your UNCF/Merck Award, Karen Fleming said you are “an insightful researcher and scholar.  It has been a genuine pleasure to interact with him in the laboratory and in the classroom…I think his potential is enormous, and I look forward to hearing great things about him in the future.”

In another article it says, “Bubb, who is from Brooklyn, New York, and will graduate from Johns Hopkins next month, credits his work with Karen Fleming, a professor of biophysics, as a backbone for his career goals.”

So how has Dr. Fleming’s mentorship molded your goals?

QB: She is a brilliant science mentor. The way she thinks about biophysics is very unique and very thorough, and that’s the way I want to model myself as a scientist. I like the way she runs her lab. She’s very insightful, she’s a good guide for the science and she foster a family environment for the lab, which is something that I would like to do. I knew her since freshman year, and after taking a few classes I knew I wanted to do protein folding and since I developed this relation with her my freshman year, I figured why not join her helping in research?

On the other side, she’s brilliant for other things that don’t pertain to science. She’s spearheading an effort to make people more aware and to address gender equity. She knows about struggles of minority groups, especially as a white woman in science – it’s very difficult. For example at Cambridge, the professor I want to work with there: she’s the third female Professor of Chemistry in Cambridge history.

BO: Wow!

QB: And Cambridge has been around for several centuries. Those struggles are the same for blacks; same for Latinos, and she’s well aware of them. So she’s been very guiding in that aspect too.

BO: While looking up and reading articles, I saw a little bit about your goals. It says “In the future, Bubb intends to pursue both an MD and a PhD in molecular biophysics, with the hope of advancing clinical treatment of diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.”

Also in another article, it says “Bubb will pursue an MD/PhD in Molecular Biophysics. As a future physician-researcher, he hopes to teach at the university level, as well as lead studies of the biophysical mechanisms that dictate protein folding, translating this knowledge into pharmaceutical discoveries that will prompt advancements in the treatment of a range of illnesses, including Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.”

I keep seeing Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. Why? (Chuckles)

QB: So, those are the most people know about. The question is, how does biophysics relate to Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s and the reason that is relates is because, during Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, ALS, and diabetes, there is a process called “aggregation”, where a protein doesn’t adopt the correct structure and it starts clumping up with itself in a very similar manner to the processes my lab studies with bacteria and this causes disease. So A) we don’t understand why these proteins clump together, B) we don’t have good methods of preventing this process, and C) we don’t know what that process is doing to the cells. It’s unclear whether or not these aggregated proteins are a cause or a property but we do know that it’s a common denominator across all these diseases and it’s unclear why that is.

BO: So let’s move forward to junior year around April when you got the UNCF/Merck award after you had been researching in Karen Fleming’s lab for about a year. What was the application process like? How did you find out about it?

QB: So, once again, Karen Fleming. She told me about this scholarship freshman year and told me that I’d be eligible for it if I did well, so I should keep it in the back of my mind because it’s only available to juniors.

BO: Sounds like a really good advisor (Chuckles).

QB: Yeah, she’s phenomenal. The application process entailed mainly one essay. You talk about your academic development, how you landed at your career goals and why you want to do it, and how the UNCF/Merck fits into that trajectory that you set up for yourself. That was all in one essay

I had been editing and editing right up to the deadline and I actually met a person who got the UNCF/Merck at a conference I went to the month before and he was happy to guide me through things that I should include. This was an annual biomedical research conference for minority students in San Antonio

BO: You didn’t have to apply for this conference did you?

QB: Oh you did! You had to submit an abstract for your research and then present a poster and my lab funded the trip.

BO: So you knew what you were doing and you were taking the steps to…how would you put it in your words?

QB: So I consider trajectories like “I want to be an MD/PHD” like a walking escalator. It’s just a matter of putting yourself in the right one at the right time. So ABRCMS [Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students] was a good opportunity to meet all these different schools and all these different programs to get an idea of what I want to do, where I want to do it. It was also a good opportunity to get used to networking and things like that, which is more important than people make it seem in science. So I met a lot of good people there and I still have these connections today.

BO: So what did getting this award or scholarship mean to you?

QB: Uhh, it meant that (pauses to think). I had potential (smiles). So it’s one thing to think or know you have potential, and it’s another thing to be recognized for it. So definitely, it really helped my self-esteem. I was thinking maybe I can actually do this. That aspect of it was very helpful because confidence in science is incredibly important.

BO: Okay. So, now we get to the Marshall scholarship. When did you apply for this?

QB: So the application wasn’t due until September. I’ve been working on it since March, April around there.

BO: Right after you got the UNCF/Merck?

QB: Yeah, it’s a very long process. So this was by far, one of the hardest things I’ve done at Hopkins. I probably went through 20 to 30 different versions of essays of the summer. Revise, revise, revise. And then, late October I got notified that I got an interview, and then from there, it was hard core preparation for mock interviews, to prepare for the actual interview. The actual Marshal interview is a panel of 6 Marshall Scholars from previous years. There was a Policy Analyst, a Geologist, a Physician, an Economist, a Lawyer and an English Professor. They grill you. On campus, I set up a few mock interviews with professors, to sort of get me used to that kind of environment.

BO: What did getting a Marshall mean to you and when did you figure out that you got it?

QB: I found out in November and the press release was [during] Thanksgiving break. I still go through moments where I’m like, “Did I actually get this?” Because never in my career have I been so unsure about what the future will hold. I’m going to a place I’ve never been before, studying something I’ve never studied before, among people that I’ve never dealt with before.

BO: How did you pick Professor Jane Clarke?

QB: So I talked to a bunch of my professors, asked them “who do you think would be a great mentor for me in the UK?”  Two or three of them said Jane Clarke.  One of my professors who actually wrote my letters is friends with Jane Clarke. The biophysics community is kind of small. So you could be in Germany or the UK and still have these collaborations. So I contacted her in April, saying I’m interested in applying for; I’ve been wondering if you would take me to work with you and she said sure.

BO: If you had a chance to start you Hopkins career over what would you do differently?

QB: (Takes time to think). I would take more risks. A lot of my career has been spent doing the safe thing. Applying for the Marshall was the biggest risk I’ve ever taken. So, like 3 percent of people who apply for [the] Marshall get it, and I actually got cold feet over the summer and almost dropped out because I didn’t think it was worth it. But I took the risk and put the work in because one of the professors in the fellowship department said “If you try it’s three percent; if you don’t, it’s zero and it’s your fault that you don’t get it.” So that was a pretty compelling reason to keep going for it.

Also, I would be more confident…It’s so easy to slip through the cracks. It’s incredible easy to slip through the cracks!  Taking the risk and being confident are one of the best ways to avoid that happening. Just putting yourself out there makes it easier for people to see you fail, rather than for you to fail in the eyes of no one.

BO: What type of risks?

QB: Social dimension of taking risks – try to be that person’s friend, go that that one event that you didn’t think you would fit in there. Also take a class that you think you might not do well in but you’re interested in the topic or go talk to that professor because you think his work is interesting and go work with him. Ask that question in class that you’re really curious about, but you’re afraid it’s a stupid question.  Being bold gives you thicker skin and thicker skin only helps you in the long run.

BO: If you could talk to one person from history who would it be?

QB: One person from history (takes time to think). It would be Frederick Douglas. He was a phenomenal dude. He wrote several book and is a better communicator than I am, and I went many years of school education learning how to read and write. He dealt with a lot of things – he was a freed slave and he wrote in a way that even 150 years later, I feel as though I’m talking to him in the moment. I think I would have a great conversation with him about, general advice on life: how to persist, how to keep your faith, how to not get broken. Having faith is important especially as a college student because once again, it’s very easy to slip through the cracks.

BO: What makes you happy?

QB: Jazz…and that moment when [your mentees are] looking at you sideways and then you say something and they’re like “ohh…” That hits me right here (beats his chest referring to his heart). The process of understanding things, and discovering things about yourself and other people brings me a lot of joy. And I would say being a doctor is a pretty good way to do that.