Derek Sung, a third year CPM MD/PhD student in Mark Kahn’s lab, has found a unique way to showcase his appreciation for how beautiful cells can be - he runs the popular Instagram account, @Immunofluorescence. Derek utilizes immunofluorescence and confocal microscopy to study vascular biology and development during hematopoiesis, and in the placenta. He was first introduced to these techniques while working at the Laboratory of Molecular Cardiology at the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute at the NIH, and was particularly drawn to its inherent artistry. “Knowing the nuances in staining and imaging makes it as much of an art as a science,” he says. Additionally, there are many different ways to analyze a single image and get a lot of data at once, making the techniques both pretty and productive at the same time. Perhaps unsurprisingly, his favorite thing to image is the heart, since that is what he used to study. Derek often immunostains whole mouse embryos, and once he collects what he needs, he looks for anything else that might be interesting. Through these techniques, he has come to appreciate the striking nature of cellular structures such as the cytoskeleton, as well as many different cell types and tissues.
Scrolling through Derek’s Instagram page, it is clear that he has not only mastered the art of immunofluorescence, but confocal microscopy as well. Derek started his account in April of 2017, and overtime gained a few thousand followers. One day, he received a message from Jerry Fagerber, manager of the Cell Press Instagram account. That opportunity led to a feature of his work in the Cell Picture Show, and an interview for CrossTalk, the official blog of Cell Press. Now, Derek has 13K Instagram followers and counting.
Lymphatic endothelial cells stained for VE-cadherin in red, actin in cyan, and nuclei in yellow. Image courtesy of Derek Sung
A lot goes in to running a successful Instagram account. Over the years, Derek has learned that it’s important to post consistently, know your audience, learn when the best times to post are, and write clear and informative captions. This last point is especially important, as the goal of Derek’s Instagram page is to not only share his incredible images, but also to help people appreciate science. There are many misconceptions about medicine and science; Derek uses the captions for each post to as a way to offer the perspective of a medical student, and help humanize the stories the pictures tell. “People who provide care are also human, and find stresses in their work. As a medical student, a lot of things are first time experiences,” Derek notes. From a scientific standpoint, Derek’s goal is to communicate the content with less technical jargon, and make science accessible to people of all background levels of understanding.
Running a popular Instagram account while being a busy MD/PhD student can be tricky to balance, but Derek doesn’t consider managing the account work. He sees it as a fun opportunity to teach people, and to share his research and what he knows. In addition to maintaining @Immunofluorescence, Derek started a podcast called “Beyond the Abstract” with fellow MD/PhD student Ellen White. Joined by various experts in the field, Derek and Ellen discuss basic science papers in a way that anyone can understand. Their podcast highlights the importance of basic science, and aims to show that it is just as important as translational research.
Presenting science in a clear and effective way in order to make it accessible to everyone has become a passion for Derek. He hopes that with his Instagram page and his podcast, he can reach a wider audience. When asked if there is anything he has not stained or imaged yet but would like to in the future, he answered immediately, “The brain. I just haven’t come across it in my work. Maybe one day.” Wherever he takes his talents next, the results are sure to be illuminating.
Derek’s work can be found at https://www.instagram.com/immunofluorescence/.
“Beyond the Abstract” can be found on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Google Play, or https://beyondtheabstract.captivate.fm/
You can read Derek’s interview for CrossTalk at http://crosstalk.cell.com/blog/meet-derek-sung.