Van Andel Institute Graduate School is home to exceptional students from across the U.S. Working on an individual thesis under the guidance of a distinguished faculty mentor, Graduate School students are bright, inquisitive, independent learners with a passion for biomedical research.
Undergraduate University: Northern Arizona University (B.S. Biology)
Thesis: Genetic modifiers of LRRK2-induced cellular toxicity
Mentor: Darren Moore, Ph.D.
How would you describe your area of study to your grandmother?
I study the genetics of inherited Parkinson’s disease. Twelve genes are associated with Parkinson’s and I have chosen two of these genes, LRRK2 and VPS35, to see if they work in the same cellular pathway to cause disease.
Did you take time off before starting your Ph.D. degree or come directly from an undergraduate or master’s degree program?
After graduating from Northern Arizona University I worked as an animal care technician for a young biotech company for two years before applying to graduate school. During that time I applied to M.D./Ph.D. programs, did field research in the subways of NYC, went to Australia, was eventually laid off, and ran a gluten-free taco truck. For me, this time was critical because I realized that I wanted to be a scientist, rather than a doctor/M.D., that I didn’t want to be in school for 12+ years as a M.D./Ph.D., and that I wanted to ask my own scientific questions, rather than follow orders. Together these realizations made graduate school the clear path forward in a time of much uncertainty. I would recommend a year or two off to anyone. You can gain life experience, strengthen your application and mature mentally and emotionally (which has been key to my graduate school sanity and success).
Do you think there is any value in social networking with other graduate students in non-related fields?
Absolutely. I think talking with other graduate students, no matter their field of study, provides insight into how graduate programs are built, different leadership styles and expectations and what various universities are working on. The program at VAIGS is very different from the “typical” graduate program and talking with other graduate students can help understand the strengths and weaknesses of each program.
What is your favorite stress-reduction technique?
Sleeping in the sun or riding my bike.
Are you involved in other community activities and if so, how have they shaped your graduate experience?
I am involved with the Ultimate communities in Grand Rapids, and around the states of Michigan, Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado. In addition to getting leadership practice, this exposure gives me a chance to talk to a wide variety of people about graduate school, Parkinson’s disease, genetics and the state and process of research as a whole. I find these conversations really valuable because they help highlight what people are interested in and concerned about today.
If you were asked to put something in a time capsule for each year you have been in the program and this capsule would not be opened for 25 years, what would you contribute?
I would put in “mantras” to myself to help through the trying times. First year: Working at the edge of knowledge can make you feel like an idiot, but it also where discovery lives. Second year: There is no science if there is no you. Take care of yourself. Third year: Dare to dream but stay focused; keep chugging.
Is there anything else you would like us to know about your doctoral education experience?
You have to be your own advocate, especially in terms of setting your own boundaries and taking care of yourself and your life outside of science. One of the most important lessons I have learned and keep learning over again is to protect your time. There is always too much to do and not enough time—you have to decide what takes priority.