Mount Made: Experimenting in the Lab—and the Kitchen
Alumna Puts Her Ph.D. to Work
Joy Cote ’12 sees science all around her. Take, for example, her knack for cooking. Measuring ingredients, mixing things together, changing their chemical compositions—it’s all science. She just has to make sure she doesn’t accidentally add some hydrochloric acid to her tacos…
She’ll admit that she was a bit of an anomaly when it came to answering that age-old question of: what do you want to be when you grow up? Joy’s always had a strong scientific curiosity—from preschool to elementary school to high school. And whereas most college freshmen who declare a major in the natural sciences expect to make their way to medical school at some point, Joy always knew she’d find herself in a research laboratory.
“Part of the reason I knew the Mount was the right place for me was because of the small class sizes, the dedicated faculty members, and the myriad of opportunities that I would not get at a larger university,” Joy reflected.
Her Mount experience and all she gained from it made her transition to graduate school almost flawless, with an offer to study at Wesleyan University in Connecticut right upon graduating from the College.
With the help of a molecular biophysics training grant—a strong focus of the graduate program at Wesleyan—Joy found herself at the crosshairs of physics, molecular biology, and chemistry. It was a lot of studying, experimenting, researching, and testing, but it paid off in the end when Joy earned her Ph.D. in 2018.
“I joke now that, back when I was 21 and finishing up my undergrad, I knew that if I got a ‘real job’ right after college I would never go back for graduate school” Joy said with a chuckle.
Currently, Joy’s working as a research scientist at Prelude Therapeutics, a clinical-stage precision oncology company focused on discovering and developing small molecule therapies optimized to target the key drivers of cancer cell growth, resistance, and survival. That’s a mouthful—we get it. But, to put it simply, Joy’s using her passion for science and her concern for others to help find treatments for cancer patients around the globe.
And that’s pretty cool, if you ask us.
“In my role, I’m working in the biochemistry end of cancer drug discovery research. Mainly, I’m working to screen compounds and then I look to see how those compounds inhibit the different targets we have in question,” explained Joy.
It’s a job she loves and a field that fuels her ever-expanding interest in biochemistry.
Prior to joining Prelude Therapeutics back in March, Joy finished her work as a postdoctoral associate experience at Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia. There, she worked with top researchers in the field on experiments to examine how enzymes work and how they interact with several different factors. After three years—almost exactly to the day—at Fox Chase, she felt confident to move onto new research endeavors, leading her to her current position at Prelude.
No two days are ever the same for Joy, which can be said about almost any job. But her primary responsibility at Prelude is to design assays, which are investigative science procedures used for qualitatively assessing or quantitatively measuring the presence, amount, or functional activity of a target entity.
“When designing an assay, I’m approaching it from either a biochemical aspect—asking how an enzyme functions—or from a biophysical aspect—looking at how an enzyme performs,” Joy described. “So working for a pharmaceutical company like Prelude, I’m given a target of interest and then I design an assay to monitor and test that target.”
Another mouthful, for sure. But trust us when we say that Joy is playing a critical role in the race to find better treatments, and maybe even a cure, for cancer.
When she doesn’t have her lab coat and goggles on, Joy’s reading up on the latest publications, reviewing relevant literature, and making sure she’s abreast of all the science behind the experiments she’s performing.
“There’s no better feeling than finally getting an end result on an experiment you’ve been working hard on,” Joy said. “I hate the struggle—I won’t lie! But when you put significant effort into moving through the challenges and roadblocks and you ultimately get everything to fall into place, that’s a feeling that’s just fantastic.”
Those “ah-ha!” moments are what continue to drive her and what motivate Joy to wake up each morning feeling refreshed and ready to forge onto new scientific discoveries.
Before she got to where she is today, she had to first apply to graduate school, which wasn’t exactly a simple process—Joy even admits that it was a little overwhelming at times. But she was lucky to have the support of so many of her Mount professors inspiring and guiding her along the way.
“When I was applying, there really was no ‘virtual’ option for interviews,” recalled Joy. “It wasn’t common (or maybe even invented yet?) to meet with different schools on Zoom. So it was a bit overwhelming to schedule visits to schools around the country during my senior year, but somehow I made it all work.”
She knew what she wanted to study, so she went after it.
“I’ve always enjoyed the more numbers-based science analysis, which is a smaller portion of biology, but most certainly chemistry,” said Joy.
That made it a no-brainer for Joy to major in chemistry and minor in biology at the Mount, propelling her into acceptances at some of the nation’s top graduate programs.
But reflecting back on her Mount experience, one of the most unique aspects of her time at the College was Joy’s invitation to participate in not just one, but two research projects alongside faculty members in the Division of Natural Sciences. That’s an experience that isn’t exactly common for undergraduate students around the country. But at the Mount, there’s an abundance of opportunities for students to engage in groundbreaking, professional research—and even present at national conferences.
Under the supervision and guidance of Virginia A. LiVolsi, M.D. Professor in Biology James Fabrizio, Joy and a group of her peers studied fruit flies and spermatogenesis development (read about a paper they published here!). And she also worked with Director of the Division of Natural Sciences and Professor of Chemistry Pamela Kerrigan on an inorganic synthesis of different compounds.
One of the biggest lessons she learned from her studies in the lab was from Dr. Fabrizio, who once told her: “I don’t care if you mess up, I care if you don’t tell me.” That’s a sentence she’s carried with her through grad school and into her professional career as a researcher today—and something she passes along to almost everyone she mentors or works alongside.
“I have no hesitation to admit when I’ve done something wrong or when something doesn’t look right, which is not easy for us to do as humans,” Joy explains. “Dr. Fabrizio’s words have stuck with me to this very day and it’s not something I’ll ever forget.”
Through making mistakes and adhering to trial and error, Joy was able to take note of different research styles and approaches to inquiries—which certainly aided her in her quest for an academic focus in both grad school and her career.
“I loved the research I did as an undergrad, but I came to realize that both of those projects were missing something,” mentioned Joy. “I ultimately narrowed it down to my passion for working with proteins and enzymes and how they function, which is exactly what I’m doing today!”
Joy herself admits that she owes a lot to Mount Saint Vincent, especially the professors who were there to support her every decision. She still keeps in touch with many of them today, and has even returned to campus a few times to give talks and presentations to current students.
As an undergraduate, Joy was inducted into Sigma Xi, the Scientific Research Honor Society. She continued her relationship with Sigma Xi into her graduate work, earning a research grant to continue the work she started as a postdoctoral associate. That connection to Sigma Xi started right at Mount Saint Vincent.
“The Mount has been the foundation of everything I’ve done since,” Joy said. “I basically lived in the Science Hall when I was a student. Aside from taking almost all of my classes there, I worked in the stock room and frequently met with my professors in their offices. It definitely became my second home.”
And Joy not only dedicated countless hours of research in the labs of the Science Hall, she was also an active student leader throughout campus. Some of her favorite activities outside the classroom? Spearheading events at the New York Hall of Science with the Science Club, volunteering to bring food and clothing to those marginalized on the streets of New York City with Campus Ministry and the Midnight Run, and welcoming new Dolphins to campus each summer as an orientation leader.
“One summer when I was an orientation leader, we had to do a ‘get to know you’ ice breaker with our peers,” Joy recalled. “Jokingly, I put down that I wanted to one day develop flavors for Ben and Jerry’s ice cream. I recently went to a wedding for a friend from the Mount, and ran into a fellow orientation leader that I hadn’t really kept in touch with. He asked me: ‘So, are you working for Ben and Jerry’s?’ I admitted that no, I had diverged a bit from that career path. But it reminded me that maybe one day I can work on the science behind the perfect ice cream flavor!”
Now that’s some science that’s more in our wheelhouse.
Joy’s made lifelong friendships with both her peers and professors—keeping in touch with a core group of friends and even running into some of her past professors at academic conferences across the country. That’s what’s so amazing about life at the Mount and beyond—there always seems to be a connection back to Riverdale no matter where you find yourself on the globe.
Joy’s career is just beginning, and we know we’ll be reading her name one day after she discovers the key to a successful cancer treatment. Or maybe after she wins a competition on the Food Network. Either way, she’s sure to be cooking up her next experiment either in the lab or the kitchen.
Are you Mount Made? Do you know other alums living out the mission of the College? Let us know—we’d love to show how the Mount helped launch your career. Contact us to be featured!
About the College of Mount Saint Vincent
Founded in 1847 by the Sisters of Charity, the College of Mount Saint Vincent offers nationally recognized liberal arts education and a select array of professional fields of study on a landmark campus overlooking the Hudson River. Committed to the education of the whole person, and enriched by the unparalleled cultural, educational, and career opportunities of New York City, the College equips students with the knowledge, skills, and experiences necessary for lives of achievement, professional accomplishment and leadership in the 21st century.