Matt Smola

Hometown: Avon, Ohio
Miami University

One thing Biochemistry & Biophysics graduate student Matt Smola really likes to do is talk.  He describes himself as a “goofy guy who likes to tell really, really corny jokes – anything to get a laugh” and in college he was a campus tour guide which he says makes him “especially good at talking while walking backwards – in flip flops of course”.  But there’s more to it than just making people laugh.  In lab, Matt likes to interact with people and connect regularly because he says the lab is not just a collection of people pursuing independent interests – it’s a network of people with common goals.  “I am curious about what people are doing.  The problem someone else is having might be something I dealt with already or it could be something I will deal with in the future.  So I think talking is really important.”  That view of a lab as a team comes directly from his experience as an undergraduate in Michael Kennedy’s structural biology lab at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.  The lab participated in a unique program that involved student-led teams of undergraduates working together on a research project.  He says a staff scientist in that lab worked closely with him and the other undergraduates in the lab daily.  “He was extremely patient, always friendly and never lost it no matter how busy he was.  And, he had lots of insight.”  Those close interactions with his mentor and with the other students helped change his career plans.  “When I started college I thought I was going to go to medical school, but I really liked working in the Kennedy lab, so soon I realized that research is what I really wanted to do.”

Matt was interested in continuing to work on macromolecular structure in graduate school and that ultimately led him to Kevin Weeks, pioneer of a leading technology called SHAPE (Selective 2′-Hydroxyl Acylation analyzed by Primer Extension) that allows very accurate prediction of RNA secondary structures.  “One of the great things about Kevin’s lab is that with SHAPE chemistry we have the ability to address questions that very few other labs can. On top of that, RNA is interesting because it’s been assumed for so long that RNAs are simply messengers carrying genetic information from DNA into their protein products. Now we know that a vast majority of transcribed RNAs are noncoding RNAs and serve some other role in the cell.”  SHAPE chemistry has been used by the Weeks lab and others to reveal the sequence of an entire HIV genome, to advance understanding of RNA folding dynamics, and to probe the structure of important RNAs including rare RNAs present in low abundance.  One of Matt’s projects involves “using an in vitro evolution approach to develop a new enzyme that will enable us to more readily discern between single-stranded and based paired nucleotides. Our hope is that a new, more robust enzyme may allow us to read SHAPE reactivity by high throughput sequencing with high confidence.”  Matt is also part of the UNC Biophysics Training Program.  While the coursework was rigorous, he really appreciates the tight-knit community the program fosters, as well as some of the unique learning opportunities.  “The seminar course where we met with the weekly seminar speaker was great. It’s nice to sit down with someone who is successfully doing science and learn about how they got to where they are.  Everyone’s story is different.”

Matt balances lab work with several creative pursuits outside the lab.  He’s an accomplished photographer (see his photo of the week on NBC’s Travel Photos site).  One of Matt’s favorite things to photograph is nature and in the last few years he’s taken several camping trips to the North Carolina Mountains to explore the many waterfalls and scenic views the area has to offer.   On his last trip the night sky was so clear he was able to get some shots of the Milky Way.  At home he also like to try cooking new dishes.  Inspired by his Hungarian roots he recently learned to make Chicken Paprikash, a childhood favorite of his.  “It was pretty good!  I even made my own spaetzle, which is a lot easier than you might think”.  But perhaps the most unique of Matt’s creative pursuits is his cartooning.  “I’ve always been a doodler, but I started drawing these cartoons about a year ago.  They’re mostly interpretations of corny science jokes. It’s just another way to flex the creative neurons and relieve some stress.”

Matt has also served as a TA for a biophysics summer course and mentors students in the lab whenever he gets the opportunity.  “I get a lot of enjoyment out of mentoring and working with students. Maybe it’s because I’m such a ham, who knows.”  When describing key elements of an effective mentoring relationship Matt says that both parties have responsibilities.  As a mentor he tries to be patient and open and to remember there is more to his mentee’s life than lab.  The mentee, on the other hand, has to be proactive and put in the work.  Matt himself has always tried to be well prepared before coming to his mentors with questions.  “I always like being able to say ‘Well, this didn’t work – but – I tried this other thing and it did.’”  When asked about Matt’s strengths, his advisor Kevin didn’t hesitate at all.  “Matt just does a lot of things well.  He sees the big picture and also knows how to translate these long-term ideas into the next concrete experimental step.  He is a great mentor for new students, both in formal classes and in open-ended research work”.   Those mentoring skills got him noticed by his First Year Group leader who recruited him this year to serve as a First Year Group peer mentor for incoming students.  ”There can be a lot of stress in the first year between all the classes, finding rotations, lab work and a lot of other things.  It’s easy to get caught up in that even though everyone comes out on the other side just fine.  My hope is that knowing an older student who is not stressed out will show new students that life in grad school is totally manageable, so they can calm down.  I remember meeting some older grad students who were very approachable and it made me feel comfortable talking to them about things I was sure were stupid nitty-gritty details. I hope I am like that for the first years I mentor.”