University of Vermont

Graduate College

Student Profile: Brian Cunniff

PhD candidate, Cellular, Molecular, and Biomedical Sciences (CMB)

Brian CunniffBrian Cunniff is a PhD candidate in the University of Vermont’s Cellular, Molecular, and Biomedical Sciences (CMB) program. Originally from Pittsfield, Massachusetts, Brian received a BA degree in Biology with a minor in Music from Elms College in Chicopee, Massachusetts.

The winner of two prestigious Young Investigator Awards, Brian was interviewed recently for IMPACT by editor Dan Harvey.

IMPACT: It’s always interesting to see what graduate students study as undergraduates.  You have a degree in biology but also music.  As a CMB student, you are obviously still doing work in biology. Are you still pursuing music as well?

BC: I do still play music once in a while. Scientific research and music are similar in a number of ways: hard work, practice and lots of creativity dictate your success. I’d like to think I'm a better biologist than musician. Plus I'm a terrible singer, so music wasn’t a great option! I met my wife during college and her father is a medical microbiology technologist. Seeing his career path, along with advice from a very passionate advisor/professor proved to me you could have a fulfilling and lucrative career in science.

IMPACT: You're very fortunate to have had such a strong advisor. After your experience at Elms College, what inspired you to come to graduate school at UVM?

BC: Post-undergrad, I worked as a medical cytogenetic technologist looking at genetic aberrations associated with numerous disease states. This work was very exciting but lacked the creativity and individualism that pursuing a graduate degree in research allows you. I learned about and joined the Cellular, Molecular, and Biomedical Sciences (CMB) program here at UVM in 2009. I'm currently pursuing my PhD in the laboratory of Dr. Nicholas Heintz where I'm investigating the mechanism of action of the anti-cancer compound thiostrepton, a potential cancer therapeutic. The CMB program is very diverse, studying numerous aspects of cell and molecular biology, one of the many factors that influenced my decision to do my graduate work at UVM.

IMPACT: Speaking of Dr. Heintz, this is what he said about you recently:  “Brian has done an excellent job taking advantage of the entire educational landscape in our CMB program, and as a consequence will enjoy a broad array of opportunities as he moves forward.  It has been very rewarding to have him in the lab and watch him develop into an independent investigator.”  On the heels of that compliment from an outstanding UVM faculty member, tell us a little bit about your graduate studies from your perspective.

Brian at work in the labBC: I was told early on by Nick that being smart wasn’t necessarily the path to a successful PhD. Work, work, and more work was the only way! It has been exciting and challenging from day one, an experience that I will always look back on as being some of the best years of my life. Taking over a project and making it your own can be difficult and stressful, but the support I've had from Nick and the faculty members I've interacted with at UVM has been nothing but positive, something that makes the process much easier. They have your back and really want you to succeed.

IMPACT: I understand that you've been awarded two Young Investigator Awards (YIAs). Tell us about them and how you received them.

BC: In 2012 I gave an oral presentation at the Society for Free Radical Research International meeting at University College London, England, where I won a YIA.  This was an amazing experience, being my first ever talk in front of over 500 colleagues outside of UVM. I was nervous of their reaction to my work, and the award was a great confidence booster.

Then, this past November, I presented another aspect of my thesis work at the Society for Free Radical Biology and Medicine meeting in San Antonio, Texas, where I won the other YIA. Attending meetings and presenting your work is an essential component of relaying your research, and a great way to meet people you may want to work with in the future. Plus a little extra cash in your back pocket is never a bad thing!

IMPACT: Those awards certainly bode well for your career -- congratulations.  Tell us where you are in your graduate education and what you plan to do after graduating.

BC: I'm currently in the 5th year of my thesis dissertation and am starting to put “pen to paper” on my thesis. I'm in the process of interviewing for postdoctoral positions in labs across the country that focus on identifying new therapeutic targets in cancer and how certain dysfunctional cellular organelles contribute to varying disease states, including cardiovascular Brian kayaking on Lake Champlaindisease and cancer. I'd like to stay in academic research for my career but the future is full of surprises, so it’s one step at a time for now.

IMPACT: It sounds like you may be leaving the area at some point. What has it been like to go to graduate school in Vermont?

BC: I'm an avid outdoorsmen and the surrounding mountains have been a playground for the past few years. It’s great having this landscape so close and being able to escape the “hustle and bustle” (just kidding) of Burlington. The CMB graduate program has a special vibe to it; great research groups, a hospital right next door, and an exciting and dynamic city that's enough to keep even the biggest of city dwellers entertained, never mind the views of Lake Champlain and the surrounding mountains. It'll be sad day when my wife and I leave, but Vermont’s on the top of our list for a place to settle down in the future.

IMPACT: We wish you the best of luck, and thanks for the interview!