Creativity in Science

David NikomWith a passion for science, David Nikom ’17 created his own path of learning and fun inspired by great teachers. Interested in neuroscience from an early age following a summer science camp, he’s never slowed down in his push to gain knowledge in the field. Nikom set realistic goals and acquired both the people skills and technical know-how to secure a fulfilling job in the biotech industry.

At UMass Amherst, Nikom pursued a BS Neuroscience Track which exposed him to a wide variety of sciences including chemistry, biology, physics, and psychology. During his sophomore year, he got the opportunity to work in the behavioral neuroscience lab of David Moorman. He found a home there as a research assistant for the remainder of college, studying the neural systems underlying complex behaviors like motivation and executive function in animals.

“It was interesting to see all of the different neuroscience projects going on at the same time…what that physically looked like. You read a paper but don’t really see what really goes into everything. Watching a grad student basically hand-make electrophysiological tools, soldering tetrodes, spinning wires, driving it into a 3D-printed casing…seeing all the little things that are involved gave me more perspective,” says Nikom.

Each semester he acquired new roles and responsibilities, while being mentored by an excellent team of researchers. One of the most valuable things he learned about teamwork was by helping others he created new learning opportunities. “If you’re constantly taking the initiative, trying to sacrifice some of your time to make [a grad student’s] life easier, people immediately see that, they respect it…and they start to enjoy helping you,” notes Nikom. By maintaining positive relationships with his team and having a strong work ethic, Nikom created many great chances to learn about real-world neuroscience.

For three consecutive summers, Nikom was a pharmaceutical research intern at a startup biotech company in Seattle. This was his first experience with a drug delivery platform, where he performed analytical chemistry and worked with the microscopic anatomy of biological tissue.

Completing an honors thesis in the Moorman Lab, Nikom studied how a specific population of neurons in a little known area of the brain contributes to addictive behaviors in rats. The project gave him a much deeper understanding of literature within the field, what the latest developments and limitations were, and what quality research looks like. “It’s a difficult process…but it was definitely manageable. It gave me the confidence that I could pursue an even bigger project,” Nikom says.

In his current position as a research associate for a cancer drug development company, he is excited about his work in translational biology. He enjoys the rigorous demands of the environment and contributing to medical knowledge that could improve health outcomes. “At the end of the day I get to work with cells, proteins, animals, the building blocks of life…it’s a pretty cool job. I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t enjoy it and thought it was a lot of fun,” Nikom states.

Looking back at his time at UMass Amherst, Nikom credits the BS Neuroscience Track for jumpstarting his career. He hopes to attend graduate school in the future, taking on a significant new challenge. “Every time I push myself in neuroscience I find out something that makes me like it even more,” he observes.

Putting together the necessary skills to get ahead in the job market required careful preparation by Nikom. He offers the following advice for students looking to excel in their chosen career: “A really easy thing to do is go on the internet, look up the job you want, and see what qualifications people are looking for. [Find out] what the requirements are and if you see the same skills over and over again…think about gaining some expertise in those things.”