A Quick Q&A with NCBI Biocurators

In this new, occasional feature we call Quick Q&A, NLM staff share a bit about why they’re motivated and inspired. We also asked them to add something surprising about themselves.

For our first Quick Q&A, we reached six scientists in the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) who work in the Conserved Domain Database (CDD) group. Very simply, they’re providing the biological expertise behind the databases for studying protein structure and function.

Meet Narmada Thanki-Cunningham, Myra Derbyshire, Marc Gwadz, Noreen Gonzales McCurdy, James Suk Song, and Roxanne A. Yamashita.

Quick Q&A with Thanki-Cunningham, Derbyshire, and Gwadz
Question Narmada Thanki-Cunningham, PhD Myra Derbyshire, PhD Marc Gwadz, PhD
casual headshot of Narmanda Thanki-Cunningham casual headshot of Myra Derbyshire casual headshot of Marc Gwadz
What or who inspired you to pursue your career? I started as a technician in the crystallography department at Birkbeck College, University of London, for a project with Janet Thornton, PhD, and Julia Goodfellow, PhD. They inspired me to get my PhD.

I worked with them as a programmer/technician on hydration of proteins—got results and a paper in a year, and they asked me why I hadn’t registered for a PhD. I never looked back.

Two very inspiring high school teachers in Hong Kong encouraged my intellectual pursuits. My parents did the same. Television shows portraying news of world hunger also influenced me. My father was a researcher for the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease. His work on entomology and malaria and was an early inspiration. I also had some great science classes in high school.
How did you get started in your career? I started with an undergraduate degree in computer science and chemistry when the word “bioinformatics” didn’t mean what it does today. I was comfortable with chemistry but hadn’t done any kind of programming, so this was a steppingstone. I started with undergraduate research in plant nitrogen metabolism under the mentorship of George R. Stewart, PhD, at the University of Manchester, England while pursuing my botany degree. This initiated my interest in combating global hunger, which I carried into my PhD research and beyond. From childhood, I wanted to be a scientist. During graduate school, I became interested in protein structure and function and the computer-based methods for studying them.
What really gets you jazzed about science and research? I think nature is incredible, and protein structures excite me. The way they fold into 3-dimensional entities and how they function never cease to amaze me.

The work we do has such a huge impact on users from varied backgrounds (academia, industry, and medical/health). I find this very rewarding.

It’s an exciting profession, intellectually challenging as well as a public service, and it’s very much a team activity. I work at something that I’m passionate about alongside people with the same interest. It’s rewarding to work in a field that directly helps people—especially at NLM, which has many resources used by scientists, students, and others interested in medical and scientific questions.
If you weren’t doing this work, what other profession might you have pursued? I cannot imagine doing anything else, although I entertained thoughts of becoming a doctor when I was younger. I would be creative in other ways, such as art, or in the garden and outdoors, or in challenging the next generation to become good scientists. Since college I have been a competitive rower (in addition to biking and other sports). I think human performance is fascinating. It would have been interesting to combine these interests as a researcher or coach.
Tell us something surprising about yourself. I am pretty international—born of Indian descent, grew up in Kenya, studied in England, and now have family and job in the US.

The travel bug was in my family even for my grandfather who, at the age of 15, went to South Africa as Gandhi’s personal assistant.

I am a grandmother and an identical twin. I teamed up with a researcher in the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases to set an age-group course record (average age 40 and up) at the Head of the Charles Regatta in Boston in 2001—the top fall rowing regatta in the US. We won again in 2002, but with no course record.
Quick Q&A with Gonzales McCurdy, Song, and Yamashita
Question Noreen Gonzales McCurdy, PhD James Suk Song, PhD Roxanne A. Yamashita, PhD
casual headshot of Noreen Rivamonte Gonzales-McCurdy casual headshot of James Suk Song casual headshot of Roxanne Yamashita
What or who inspired you to pursue your career? I had a wonderful chemistry teacher in high school, which led me to pursue a chemistry degree. In college, a teacher encouraged me to pursue a PhD. I was interested in the intersection of biology and chemistry and decided to do my doctoral studies in molecular biology and biochemistry. As an undergraduate in biochemistry, I was inspired by a lecture from Nobel laureate Marshall Nirenberg. I have been lucky to have had many inspirational people in my life including my parents and many wonderful teachers. My parents imparted a strong work ethic. My high school science teacher, Dr. Frank Lutz, motivated me to pursue a career in science. He taught me the importance of questioning everything. I was also influenced by Carl Sagan while I was in high school. I had the honor of meeting him in college.
How did you get started in your career? I started with a postdoctoral fellowship at the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases and the National Cancer Institute, engineering anti-cancer antibodies to be more tolerable and efficacious for therapy. I came into bioinformatics from “wet-bench research,” which is research in a laboratory setting with lab equipment, chemicals, and biological specimens. The first time I stepped into a lab was for a work-study program in Dr. Eugene Chang’s lab at the University of Chicago. I started by learning basic cell culture and eventually progressed to learning a number of molecular biology techniques while working on my honors project.
What really gets you jazzed about science and research? I love solving a problem or unmasking a scientific mystery. There is a great thrill in figuring out the scientific problem while designing and carrying-out experiments to answer a specific question. To advance scientific knowledge is rewarding in itself. On a more practical level, the possibility of finding useful applications gets me through the tedious aspects of science. I always get excited discovering new things and seeing previously unrecognized patterns in genomes, from humans to bacteria and archaea. I love the thrill of solving puzzles. I enjoy planning experiments and figuring out which ones will give us answers to our questions.
If you weren’t doing this work, what other profession might you have pursued? Teaching I stuck with science because I couldn’t think of doing anything else. However, if I were young again, I’d want to learn piano and play Chopin’s “Nocturne” all day long. I would definitely be an artist.
Tell us something surprising about yourself. I watch baseball almost every day during the season. I did a cross-country journey by car from New York to LA right after graduating from college. I can fall asleep anywhere, anytime.