What field in Neuroscience did you study? What about the research process did you enjoy? Did you prefer gathering the data, brainstorming its meaning, the writing process, defending your research, presenting your research, etc.
I studied circadian rhythms and the biological clock in the hypothalamus in the lab of Dr. Martha Gillette. We used a slice-in-a-dish model and I conducted electrophysiology in rat brain slices. I used this method to examine the signal transduction pathway of the hormone melatonin as it influenced the biological clock.
I always enjoyed the actual experiments and the hands-on experience of working in the lab. As far as reporting results, I was more interested in the big picture and eventual clinical application to human medicine. I just never could get that excited about experimental results in my lab work (which was an indicator I was not in exactly the right career for me). I did enjoy synthesizing my work and giving presentations – eventually. As a grad student that first conference presentation was pretty scary. I also remember making all my slides by hand with CorelDRAW and Adobe Photoshop, before PowerPoint was standard.
Did you choose to continue doing research? Why or why not?
No, I left the pipeline immediately after graduate school. The field of science policy interested me. Science policy can be defined as using science and evidence to make policy decisions. Here I could synthesize lots of science and provide an overarching, big picture view of what it all means.
Do you still conduct research or has your career taken you other places? Why is that?
I have not conducted research since graduate school but I couldn’t do my job without having had that experience. I now work as a research administrator for the Department of Veterans Affairs Office of Research and Development. We are a federal scientific funding agency like the NIH, just on a much, much smaller scale. I work closely with my researchers and greatly respect and admire the hard work and dedication it takes to run a lab and apply for grants. I felt that I personally did not have the creativity needed to run my own research program.
Has your career path changed since you’ve graduated? Why or why not?
No, I am still working in peer review and science administration 20 years later.
What are some things you’ve been involved in since you graduated from the program?
Right after graduate school I was a science policy fellow for a summer at the National Academy of Sciences. I put together a panel on “heading” injuries in youth soccer. Then I moved on to a job at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (the organization that publishes the journal Science) and worked in their science policy directorate. I got to travel all over the United States with teams of experts to provide advice and guidance to universities and state agencies. I then worked at another non-profit, AIBS, where I worked completely in the field of peer review of scientific proposals for funding. Now I am at a funding agency, still conducting peer review as well as managing the portfolio of funded projects.
What is one major change that happened since graduation that you did not expect?
I am now considered a subject matter expert (SME) in areas such as traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic epilepsy, as these are the topics I oversee within my portfolio of research. It always surprises me since I have never conducted research in those areas and I am not a clinician. But in my job I have to understand the science and stay current in the research in order to manage research awards effectively. As a researcher your expertise is narrow but very very deep. Now my expertise as a research administrator is infinitely broad but extremely shallow. I guess I am a jack-of-all-trades but master of none now.
How has your personal life developed since you graduated?
Well, it’s been 20 years so my life has changed quite a bit. I moved across the country, have had three jobs, got married, had a kid.
How would you say you’ve changed since graduating?
Older and wiser for sure.
What’s a fond memory you have as a graduate student?
Every Tuesday night we would have neuroscience seminars; either outside invited speakers or researchers within our program. The late Bill Greenough would always create and read a limerick based on whatever seminar he had just heard. This was quite the standing tradition. I am disappointed that I never got my own limerick!
As a graduate student, was there anything you did that stood out to you or that you have fond memories of doing?
The neuroscience program had one weekend a year when we would invite applicants to interview in person. It was a whirlwind of activity and research presentations and interviews. I was tasked with holding the (unofficial) off-campus neuroscience party on the Saturday night, for many years. I won’t even tell you how I got reimbursed for alcohol purchases. These parties were a chance for grad students and applicants to get together and relax without any professors around. I had one marriage result after two people met at one of my parties, so I’m pretty proud of that.
Have you been back to campus since graduation? If so, when and why? If not, then why haven’t you returned?
I went back a couple years after I graduated because I had a meeting in Indiana and it was a short drive. A lot of my friends were still around. But I haven’t had a reason to visit Champaign-Urbana since. You’ll have to invite me to give a talk. 😉
I am happy I have stayed in touch with some friends from UIUC. It has been great seeing the different career paths everyone from the same program has taken. And the funny thing is, UIUC is so big that I am constantly running into people who also graduated from there in the 1990’s – we could have passed each other on the quad!
What impact do you hope your thesis has on the field of Neuroscience? If you are currently in research, what do you hope your work has on the field? If not, then how do you feel about the impact you left on the field and its importance?
I don’t feel like I did groundbreaking work. I did not publish much. I was never ambitious enough as a graduate student. My PhD was a stepping stone to a different career.
What legacy do you hope to leave behind?
As I mentioned, graduates of UIUC are everywhere. It provides a great connection when I meet someone from my school, especially at a professional conference. Not a legacy exactly, but I feel part of a community.