Mother, Scientist and Public Health Advocate Focuses on Neonatal Health Issues
Miriam Merzel Schachter ’09S received her PhD in Biomedical Sciences in 2014 from the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. She got her inspiration to study biology from her high school chemistry teacher at Ora Academy in Rochester, New York. “Mr. Zemel was the one who really got me interested in science,” Schachter recalled. “He made chemistry, and science in general, interesting and relevant.”
Hooked on science, she followed up with a month of science camp at the University of Rochester. What made that summer experience a turning-point, she explained, “was that I was exposed to areas of biology that were new to me. The setting was a laboratory, and the curriculum was all hands-on laboratory experiments and activities. Every couple of days had a different focus (bacteria, epidemiology, and so on), and after each unit, I was sure that I wanted to go into that area of science research!”
When she came to Stern College for Women in 2006, she knew she wanted to study biology, particularly molecular biology and human genetics. Equal in importance, though, to her academic studies were the opportunities that Stern College offered for her personal growth. She loved Stern College because she was able to combine so many interests in one place.
“I was an editor for Derech HaTeva (a Torah and science journal), an organizer for SURGE (Student Undergraduate Research Group Exchange), and a writer for The Observer.” At Stern College, she added, “I could be a biology major and also a Judaic Studies major – and I was only a couple credits short of a music minor! Stern really infused a Jewish perspective and Torah values into my outlook on science.”
One experience that really captured the essence of what Stern College offered was spending a summer doing research in the lab of Dr. Marina Holz, assistant professor in the Department of Molecular Pharmacology at Albert Einstein College of Medicine. “That was my first real experience working in a research lab,” she explained, “and Dr. Holz made sure that she really took the time to explain how the experiments work, why we were doing them and how to present the research I’d done to my peers. That summer experience was a good example of how much the faculty and staff at Stern care about their students.”
From Stern College, Schachter joined the PhD program at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. She chose Mount Sinai because of a superb internship she did there between her sophomore and junior years in genetics, and she fully expected to do her dissertation in that field.
“In the end, though,” she recalled, “my dissertation was not in the field of genetics!” Instead, she focused on the cell cycle and transcription, two fundamental biological processes introduced to her first at Stern and then again in her first-year PhD classes. “I found the question ‘How does a cell know when to replicate?’ so interesting and intricate that I wanted to study it in detail. The experience provided me with a great foundation for how cells operate, how to think critically and the laboratory skills necessary to pursue a career in molecular biology.”
Schachter has not only had the chance to be taught by great teachers but has also taken on being a teacher herself, returning to Stern College in 2012 as an adjunct instructor. “I loved coming to Stern each week to teach” she explained. “As someone who had been through the same undergrad classes, I felt I could add to the students’ experience by focusing on topics that came up again and again in my research experience.”
Equally important, though, was the chance she had “to show current Stern students what alumni have gone on to do. Pursuing a PhD in science is still a bit off the beaten track for Orthodox young women, and I hope that my teaching at Stern showed my students that a PhD is a very viable option for an Orthodox woman interested in science.”
Currently, Schachter is working at what she calls her “dream job,” as the Ronald H. Laessig Memorial Newborn Screening Fellow, a fellowship through the Association of Public Health Laboratories, an organization committed to strengthening laboratory systems serving the public’s health in the United States and globally. Her fellowship is based at the New Jersey Department of Health Newborn Screening Laboratory in Ewing, New Jersey.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention declared newborn screening as one of the top 10 public health achievements. Each state runs its own newborn screening program where all babies born in the state are tested for medical conditions that may not be obvious at birth. This is done by collecting a few drops of blood from the infant shortly after birth, and sending it to the state Newborn Screening Laboratory, where the blood is tested for indicators of different conditions. “The blood tests the lab performs allow for the identification of babies who may have a serious medical condition before they show any symptoms. This allows doctors to initiate treatment early and prevent many of the harmful effects of the condition.”
Schachter adds that “my work developing molecular tests gets me back to my original plan of going into the field of genetics. Most of the diseases we test for occur due to inherited gene mutations. I find my work very fulfilling because the tests I’m helping develop will hopefully improve the lives of babies as well as their families across the state.”
This work with newborns is also work that hits close to home. Naava Leah came into the Schachters’ world this past September, joining her brothers Aharon (5) and Moshe (3) and her father, Dovid Schachter ’10YC, ‘14RIETS, who is currently pursuing a PhD in Pharmacology at Weill Cornell Medical College.
It seems that science runs deep in the family’s genes.
“My time at YU exposed me to people who are extremely passionate and invested in what they do every day,” she noted “and that is something I wanted for myself. YU also highlighted the importance of giving back professionally to the Jewish community.” By any measure – mother, scientist, public health advocate – Schachter is pursuing what she loves and giving of herself fully to the Jewish community.