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Biochemistry and Molecular Biotechnology Blog

Webb Camille

Monday, August 28, 2023

This month, Haley chatted with MD/PhD student Webb Camille from Dr. Zuoshang Xu's lab. Please take the time to read about what he brings to our department (including his "extracurricular activity" of running a nonprofit!).

Where did you grow up?

A picture of a man in a white coat smiling
Webb smiling in his white coat.


I was born in Haiti and lived there until I was 8 years old, so I spent my formative years there. When I moved to the US (post-9/11), my family and I moved around a lot. We never stayed in one home for longer than a year for most of my childhood. My mom was a single mom of 7 kids and an immigrant, so things were challenging. I guess the place I’d call home is Everett, MA since that’s where I went to high school.


What led you to do an MD/PhD program?


I knew I wanted to go to medical school, and most people who get into medical school have research experience. I followed the numbers and decided to get research experience while I was in college to strengthen my medical school application. I didn’t expect to fall in love with research, but here I am!

I had a really impactful and unique experience during that time that inspired me to pursue a career as a physician scientist. At the time, I was studying ciliopathies affecting vision in the lab. I simultaneously did a clinical internship at Salem hospital where I helped to care for patients in the ophthalmology unit. I got to see patients who were affected by the disorders I was studying in the lab! This brought my bench work into the real world full-force and showed me how my ability to understand the molecular underpinnings of what was happening with my patients could ultimately help me be a better caregiver. That experience also got me really excited about opportunities to find new therapeutic approaches for human diseases and disorders.

In medical training, we learn all the processes and mechanisms of disease that are happening at the molecular level, but then we don’t use them in the clinic after we regurgitate the information for exams. Actual patient care is derived from existing protocols that don’t require a deep understanding of the biology at play. Having a PhD will give me a foundation to understand medicine at a fundamental level and will help me stay up-to-date with cutting-edge therapeutics. Understanding what is really happening in a patient or the mechanism of action of a drug I’m prescribing can help me be a better caretaker and can allow me to communicate more clearly with my patients about what is going on.

The MD/PhD program was attractive to me for other reasons as well. Around the time I was planning to go to medical school, my mom became disabled. At that moment, I became the primary caretaker for my mom and my younger siblings. Medical school by itself is prohibitively expensive, especially for someone in my situation, so the fact that the PhD portion of the degree would pay for the MD played a big part in my decision-making process, too.


Why did you come to do your training at UMass Chan?


It was a multifaceted decision. As I said before, I consider myself to be “from” Massachusetts, so staying local was important especially since I’m the caregiver for my family members who still live here. I did a summer research program here at UMass in 2016, and I was really impressed by the collaborative spirit here. It was different from other medical schools I had already visited. PI’s talk to each other and bring their students together to facilitate robust scientific investigations, it feels like the science and the people are rooted in the real world, there’s a sense that you can go up to anyone and have a conversation about your science or your career, everyone has your back, and you’re well-supported by the community. As an immigrant, I’d long felt like I was lacking a strong community, so the opportunity to be a part of such an incredible community was really attractive to me.


What are some setbacks you’ve faced in your journey so far, and how did you overcome them?


The way science as a field and profession is structured has actually been a huge obstacle for me. From my experience and from others like me who don’t come from money, the stipend for graduate students does not get you anywhere. It is impossible to get everything done that needs to get done while still having a bit of breathing room from a financial standpoint. You cannot have a one-bedroom apartment by yourself with a graduate student stipend. You have to have roommates or a partner or family with money. My mom and my younger sister live with me, and when random life things happen to any of us like a flat tire or a visit to the dentist, the weight of the financial stress can hit really hard. The way graduate school and our pay is set up doesn’t take into account the desired and often publicly flaunted heterogeneity of students and what we’re going through in our lives outside the lab. The financial aspects of graduate school are a huge barrier to so many would-be scientists, and the stress can limit the accomplishments of those of us who are here.

Another obstacle is, of course, how hard it is to actually do science. Making mistakes that push experiments back for weeks or months can get really frustrating. In my experience, the best way to overcome those setbacks is to realize science is a marathon. No matter what you do, in most cases, it will take years to complete a story. I also highly recommend talking to your lab mates and senior lab members about your mistakes, no matter how dumb or trivial you think they are. They have probably made similar mistakes before, and they can help you move past those mistakes more quickly and get on with your science.


How would you spend your time if you never had to work again in your life?


I assume by this question you mean, “what would I do if I had infinite financial resources?” In that case, I would become an investor. I would invest in startups that are trying to shake things up, like nuclear energy, implementation of artificial intelligence in medical settings, etc. The entrepreneurial atmosphere in the US is what keeps us competitive, but that environment needs people who not only understand the science but also are enthusiastic about its potential. And by potential, I don’t just mean as a financial opportunity, but also the potential to really make the world a better place. I’d definitely take the opportunity to put that capital to work to scale up transformative technologies and help society. Ultimately, I would love to be super rich and make the world a better place!


If you could live anywhere in the world, where would you live?


That’s a hard question. I really want to live somewhere without guns. I love American cities, but we have a crisis happening right now, so I don’t really feel as safe here as I’d like to. So even though I’d prefer to live in the US, I guess I’d live somewhere else… My final answer is Singapore. It’s beautiful and reminds me of Miami except it is small enough to be run efficiently and have less crime.


What is your favorite kitchen utensil?


Tongs! Because they are so versatile! You can use it to replace virtually any other kitchen utensil if needed.


Anything else you’d like to talk about?


Two people standing together and smiling at the camera. One is wearing a One Leaf Corp tshirt and the other is wearing a shirt that says "roses are red, black lives matter."
OneLeaf Corp president Webb and chief strategist Azeb.

Actually, yes. I run a non-profit called One Leaf Corp that I started during COVID. We’re a regenerative agriculture and sustainability organization. We’re based in Everett and we work to fight food insecurity, waste and climate change mainly through composting. We compost school lunches, use the compost to feed local farms we started, and then give the produce from those farms to students and families in need. We do aerobic decomposition composting, so not only are we preventing food waste from taking up space in landfills but we’re also preventing the generation of dangerous greenhouse gases like methane that would be made by this waste if it was just sitting in a landfill. We’re a big part of helping the city meet its goals of reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

People can find us @oneleafcorp on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram and we accept donations through Venmo @oneleaf-corp. We also take volunteers, if anyone is interested (it is very hard to pay people, so we rely heavily on volunteers).