Blake Williams

Meet Blake Williams: a 4th year biochemistry major and biomedical research minor. During the Summer 2023 Sessions, Blake was a member of the California Alliance for Minority Participation (CAMP) program. CAMP is an NSF-funded program shared across nine UC campuses whose goal is to enhance diversity in the STEM fields at the PhD and faculty level by providing financial and professional development support to students from groups underrepresented in these fields. The summer prior, Blake conducted research supported by the UCLA Biomedical Research Minor Summer Scholarship. We had the opportunity to learn more about Blake’s research experience at UCLA:

1. How did you first get involved in your research project?

I started in the Spencer lab in spring quarter of my second year, which was my first year on campus due to COVID. The Spencer lab was one of at least 15 labs who I cold emailed when I was trying to get into research, and I was fortunate enough that they responded and had a spot open for me. Before joining the lab, I met with both Dr. Melissa Spencer and Robert, my graduate student mentor, and I talked to them about the lab’s research in gene therapies for muscular dystrophies as well as Robert’s project examining the immune response to systemic gene therapies for Duchenne muscular dystrophy. I began to assist Robert with this project for my first summer in the Spencer lab, and after some interesting findings at the end of the summer I developed my own project that I am now conducting independently. My project examines the mechanisms of how macrophages can internalize AAV, the viral vector for gene therapies, at greater rates due to antibody or complement opsonization and its effects on the downstream immune response.

2. How would you describe your research experience at UCLA?

My research experience at UCLA has been very exciting, to say the least. I’ve been able to present my research at the Biomedical Research Minor Summer Symposium last summer, Undergraduate Research Week this year, and at the American Society for Gene and Cell Therapy (ASGCT) Annual Meeting in 2023. I’ve learned a lot about the unique challenges of the scientific process and the patience and determination that it takes to do research. Our lab has a lot of collaborators both on and off campus, so I’ve also been exposed to a wide variety of research in the field of gene therapy. In addition to the amazing opportunities and personal growth that I’ve experienced in my lab, I am also extremely lucky to be a part of Dr. Spencer’s group. We have an amazing group of undergraduates, lab technicians, and graduate students and Dr. Spencer is very supportive of all of us. She invites us over to her house for holidays and definitely knows how to party!

3. What is one piece of advice you have for other students thinking about getting involved in research?

One piece of advice I have for other students who want to do research is that joining a lab is not a permanent commitment. The beauty of being an undergraduate in a lab is that this isn’t your main job. If the lab you’re in isn’t working for you or there’s another lab that’s more closely aligned with your interests, then it’s ok to switch or even stop research. The most valuable part of the undergraduate research experience isn’t the presentations or publications that you may get out of your time in a lab, it’s understanding how research is done and seeing if you genuinely enjoy it or not.

4. Have you attended a conference before? If so, can you describe your experience on preparation, presenting, etc.?

I attended the 26th Annual Meeting of the American Society for Gene and Cell Therapy (ASGCT) at the convention center in downtown LA earlier this year, where I presented my research with a poster that I collaborated on with my graduate student mentor. The process of preparing the poster mainly consisted of a few meetings with Dr. Spencer and the two of us talking about how we should organize our figures and then bringing back a few rounds of drafts. The poster session itself was a very open format where posters were hung up in a huge main room, and conference attendees could walk around and talk to us if our research interested them. We were at the poster for about 2 hours and we both gave and received a lot of advice! Outside of the poster session, the conference itself was amazing – I was able to hear from scientists from all over the United States and the world, both in industry and academia, who were doing amazing research and had really exciting results. Additionally, I received monetary support to attend this conference from the Department of Neurology, which is the department that our lab is a part of, so the conference cost me $0.

5. What are your future career goals?

My goal is to attend a medical scientist training program to earn an MD/PhD after a gap year continuing with my research in the Spencer lab. As a physician scientist, I hope to specialize in hematology/oncology and start my own lab where I will conduct clinical and/or translational research at the intersection of cancer treatment and gene therapy.