Ted Cybulski, an MD/PhD student in the Medical Science Training Program (MSTP), studies computational and statistical techniques to design biological systems that solve problems in neuroscience in the laboratory of Konrad Kording, PhD, associate professor of Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation and Physiology.
Cybulski received his undergraduate degree in biological engineering from Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Coming out of his undergraduate program full of questions, graduate school was a natural progression for Cybulski. He chose to pursue the MSTP program at Northwestern to hone his craft as a scientist and to become more grounded in the research landscape.
Where is your hometown?
I was actually born in Evanston Hospital, but I spent most of my early years just north of Detroit, Michigan.
What are your research interests?
In general, I’m drawn to the idea of modifying biological systems to solve problems that are otherwise pretty difficult. A parallel interest is using computational and statistical techniques to model biological systems. These approaches tend to complement each other, as we can try to design the biological systems that best solve our problems using those computational models. I currently apply those guiding principles to some neat problems in neuroscience.
What exciting projects are you working on?
Something that we’re pretty excited about in the lab, and what my thesis work will center on, is using DNA polymerase, the protein that copies our genetic information, as a recorder for neural activity. Basically, if you could change how “faithfully” polymerases copy information when a neuron is active, you could get a readout of what the neuron was doing over time, much like an old ticker-tape.
Having a cheap, genetically-encoded recorder has the potential to open up completely new areas of neuroscience, as well as a number of other fields. We’ve talked to people interested in using these types of sensors for environmental sensing, developmental biology, metabolite sensing, all sorts of scenarios where you want to sense a large number of things but it’s not easy to constantly monitor all your sensors. There are a number of obstacles that remain in producing proteins that can do this kind of sensing and understanding their output, which are the problems that I work on. We’ve had a strong collaboration with several labs at Northwestern and in Boston around this idea over the past couple years, and we’re excited about what will come of it in the future.
Why did you choose the MD/PhD program?
Medicine and the health sciences present some of the most pressing challenges to us as a society. Being able to see firsthand what problems are affecting people and having an intuition on how to solve them makes tackling them just a bit easier. That kind of perspective is what made MD/PhD programs appealing to me, and Northwestern’s hasn’t let me down yet.
What has been your best experience at Feinberg?
My best experience so far has been watching my Feinberg MD classmates graduate at Navy Pier a few months ago. There are a lot of great things about Feinberg, but none better than putting me amongst a tremendous group of young researchers and clinicians. I couldn’t be prouder of my medical school colleagues and I can’t wait to see how they change the world while I’m finishing up here. I’m sure I will have similar feelings as my graduate school classmates move on.
How would you describe the faculty at Feinberg?
Well, they're bright and excel at what they do, which is great. But perhaps more importantly, they're extremely collaborative and willing to make time for students. Everyone's door is open, even busiest professors, which makes everything from getting help on classwork to hashing out new research ideas much easier. The entire faculty is invested in helping students grow.
What are your plans for after graduation?
The traditional answer, and the one I’ve always leaned toward, is a research-focused residency—then hopefully off to run a lab and practice medicine. However, there are so many ways to make an impact, both through traditional and non-traditional routes, and new opportunities are popping up all the time. Right now I’m working toward a career in academic medicine, but am open to whatever detours come my way.
What do you do in your free time?
My free time is mostly filled with dance and music. I’ve volunteered at the Chicago Independent Radio Project since I moved to Chicago, and I’ll DJ there on spare nights off. Probably the neatest thing I’m involved in is PRISM, a high school mentorship program with the Northwestern MSTP and the Boys & Girls Club of Chicago. We write up medical- and science-inspired curricula and teach students about our field and why they should join us when they get older. It’s worth every minute of my time.