John Calise remembers the first time he peered into a microscope. The National Science Foundation graduate fellow and fourth-year UF College of Medicine doctoral student in the molecular cell biology concentration was surprised to find that the sight stirred something deep within him.
“I was hooked from the very beginning, from the first time I looked under a microscope at fluorescently labeled cells,” he recalls. “There is a certain beauty there. It’s like art to capture something at that molecular level.”
Calise is one of only a handful of predoctoral fellows at the UF College of Medicine. By securing funding for their research from prestigious and federally funded organizations like the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health, Calise and his colleagues prove the quality and viability of their work long before they receive their doctoral degrees and enter the workforce.
Calise’s days are filled with studying life at the molecular level. He estimates he spends 50 to 60 hours each week working in the laboratory and reading at home about cell biology. He wouldn’t have it any other way — he’s fascinated by the elusive possibility of discovery that could strike at any moment his eye is glued to the microscope.
“When you do an experiment and look under the microscope — if you get a good result — in that moment, you’re the only person in the world who has that unique knowledge,” Calise says. “Those feelings are few and far between. You live for those moments.”
Calise’s research focuses on subcellular structures called IMPDH filaments that were only discovered in the mid-2000s. His thesis offers insight into the circumstances under which the cell forms these structures and what the structures do.
“We know that these structures may be important for highly proliferating cells like immune or stem cells,” he says. “If it turns out that these structures are playing a fundamental role in cell division, that could be a huge discovery. Down the road, we could somehow manipulate cells to block or promote proliferation to improve upon therapies. These are the fundamentals of cell biology, so it could be widely applicable.”
After graduating from UF with a degree in business, Calise took a job as a lab technician for Edward Chan, PhD, a professor in the UF College of Dentistry Department of Oral Biology and the UF College of Medicine Department of Anatomy and Cell Biology. Calise built his laboratory toolkit piece by piece, observing and learning from Chan’s graduate students. After a year or two, he felt confident of the path his career would take.
Now, after eight years spent working in Chan’s lab, Calise credits his peers in the field of cell biology for propelling him forward in his unabating search for answers under the microscope.
“There’s a small community that studies these similar subcellular structures, and we see each other at least once a year,” Calise says. “We motivate each other to learn things that no one else in the world knows, to become one of the world’s experts in your topic. I want to contribute to uncovering the fundamentals of life.”