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Home » Discover Rackham » Student Spotlight: Sam Kotler

“Other than good data, the most exciting thing for a scientist is talking about their work.” Sam said as he sat down to talk about his research and graduate student experience.

Sam holds a Master’s degree in Mechanical Engineering from University of California at San Diego. “I thought I wanted to be an engineer, but it turns out I wasn’t crazy about it, so I applied to grad school.” With an undergraduate degree in physics, Sam wanted to return to his roots and discovered his passion there. When asked why he came to U-M, he grins and sheepishly says, “I’ve got to admit, I’ve been a Michigan football fan since I was a kid, but it helps that there was a lot of funding available, the biophysics department is great, and the faculty are doing research that I want to do.”

Despite hailing from Southern California, he says, “This is the right place for me. My first winter here wasn’t too bad, and I made good friends right away.” He does admit he responded right away to the new student e-mail regarding student football tickets, making his first fall here particularly more memorable. It got even better when Sam experienced his first summer in Ann Arbor. “Summer is awesome here. I ventured out a bit more, enjoying Ann Arbor Summer Festival, the art fair. The nights are long and warm.” That warmth helps, since for fun Sam competes in SUP (stand up paddleboard) races around Michigan. “I always do a race in Traverse City, but there are great races in Detroit as well.”

A molecular biophysicist, Sam is researching Alzheimer’s disease, in particular, the study of amyloid-β, the protein comprising the plaques found in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients. Amyloid-β is implicated in the pathology of the disease and is believed to play a principal role in cell toxicity. “The question is whether that protein is associated with the cause of Alzheimer’s or is a result of the disease.” There are big implications for neurodegenerative diseases that can arise from these findings.

He’s moved forward with his doctoral studies quickly at U-M, attributing much of that success to finding and joining a lab early on. “The wheels were going on the research there, and that allowed me to get a paper published right off the bat. That publication is the basis for my dissertation research.” The biophysics department here is a small, close-knit community. Sam’s joined the graduate student council there and helps plan monthly events like canoe trips, happy hours, and bowling outings for the department.

“Being awarded a Predoctoral Fellowship was a huge advantage and will go a long way towards building my CV. Grad students are as expensive as postdocs, and this award helps my lab tremendously,” Sam says. He mentions the struggle that many faculty and graduate students face in light of diminishing federal funds and the amount of time consumed in finding lab funding. “When I started in my lab, there were probably 15 or 16 of us. Now, after a couple leave this year, we’ll be down to around 8. This is what a lack of funding can do to research.”

Once his doctorate is complete, Sam plans to apply for a postdoc, keeping a close eye on a few positions in and outside the U.S. His engineering background makes him more versatile and provides an interdisciplinary approach that he hopes will help when he hits the job market.

“Research is like a wave; there are high points when everything is going right – until it’s not. There comes a point where things stop working and you have to just get through it.”