What was your iCons research project?
My iCons thesis project was an experiment designed to determine whether or not jumping spiders (P. audax) can identify a specific type of motion unique to living things called biological motion. Specifically, I would record a spider doing a characteristic aggressive motion (raising the front two legs in the air in a "V" shape), then edit that video to basically only show the motion of the spider, not the image of the spider itself. I would then play the motion video back to another spider (on a little iPod), and see if it would respond aggressively to just the motion. If it did, it could mean that it recognized the specific biological motion from the video. My data ended up showing that the spiders could not recognize biological motion; however, the lab may try a similar test again in the future with some tweaks.
Where are you now?
I am currently at the Jackson Lab in Bar Harbor, Maine (right in the middle of beautiful Acadia National Park!), working as a research assistant in the lab of Simon John. The lab is focused on researching the genetics and neurobiology of Glaucoma, one of the leading causes of blindness worldwide.
What does your position entail?
Many of the research projects I am working on involve looking at the neurobiology of the retina and optic nerve, and what specific mechanisms lead to cell loss in these areas during Glaucoma. We do this work on a mouse model called DBA/2J; these mice have certain gene mutations that cause them to show Glaucomatous symptoms usually starting around 9 months of age. I do lots of genotyping mice, immunohistochemistry, in-situ hybridization, dissections of the mouse retina and optic nerves, measuring the intra-ocular pressure of mice (this is the pressure of the fluid inside of the eye (aqueous humor) and high pressures are considered a risk factor for Glaucoma), microscopy, cell counting, data analysis...among many other things. I also manage a colony of over 1000 mice.
How did iCons help you get there?
The interdisciplinary approach to science that iCons teaches was definitely instrumental in helping me easily integrate into a large, multi-disciplinary lab. Our lab has geneticists, cell biologists, neuroscientists, and engineers... all working together to ultimately solve the same problem. Working with scientists of different disciplines is hard to do, but the skills I learned in iCons really gave me a head start and allowed me to naturally succeed in this environment! I think it is an unbelievably valuable experience for undergrads to learn how to integrate different disciplines of science to solve complex problems by working on a team and using each others strengths. iCons gave me real-life knowledge that I was able to immediately apply to my current job (something many 'typical' classes don't actually do) because it is relevant in almost every profession a scientist would go into.
What were the three most important things you did during college to help you secure this position after graduating?
Get research experience. It does not matter what type of research you do in undergrad; it's the basic skills and the mindset you learn early that are valuable. I know UMass has lot of resources for connecting undergrads with professors who need research assistants, so definitely utilize those. Also, you can go outside those if you want - I got my first research job by reaching out to a professor who I just thought was doing cool stuff in his lab. Turns out he didn't have space for me, but someone who was doing a different type of research in the same lab space he was using did. I took the position even though it wasn't what I initially wanted, because I was in the same area as he was and could chat with him about his projects, which led to me being able to volunteer to help out with some of his stuff now and again (and by the way - the position I ended up in was pretty cool too). I did two years of research in that lab, then I moved on to another lab to try a different type of science and ended up doing my thesis project there. I also did research programs and lab tech jobs over the summer which exposed me to even more types of research. I don't do many of the specific techniques I learned in any of these undergrad positions at my current job, but having a wide range of experience and having exposure to how real research works in general (along with several good references from the professors I worked with) definitely helped me land the job. Employers will generally care more about that than specific techniques you know.
Find good mentors. Luckily for us iCons-ers, we have mentors all over the place in the iCons program! Scott Auerbach was definitely a great mentor to me, as well as an inspiration because of his clear passion for the iCons program and interest in helping the students in it succeed. He helped those of us in the first graduating iCons class (there were just FOUR of us!) immensely with our senior thesis projects and presentations (along with the other iCons faculty!). Having good mentors means you'll get lots of good advice, experience, and maybe some great recommendations for your job applications. I definitely think having a few good mentors at UMass helped me get my current job.
Travel. It is surprisingly affordable to travel if you know how to do it, and UMass has a great study abroad program that I'd encourage everyone to take advantage of. I'm not sure if it directly had an influence on me getting my current job or not, but it definitely makes you a more well-rounded and cultured person. Some employers will value it more than others, but I think it is just an overall enlightening and valuable thing to do while still in college. And what better time to do it then when you are in college and have whole summers off!
What is your favorite iCons memory?
My favorite iCons memory is probably the whole last week of iCons in my senior year. After getting lots of great advice from Scott and others, all four of us from the first class in biomedicine nailed our thesis presentations in front of lots of people which was really fun and rewarding. We also had a really awesome party at the end to celebrate the very first iCons graduates in 2013.
If you could be any animal, which would you choose and why?
Hmm. I would probably want to be some kind of bird so I could fly of course. Maybe a hawk so I could have awesome vision too. Hawks are pretty cool.