Rats, mice and psychopaths: SURF alum Leah Townsend’s research journey

For her 2009 Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship, Leah Townsend ’11 explored perceptual differences between liberals and conservatives by providing two slightly different situations to her research subjects and asking questions that required them to articulate a moral judgment. Dr. Jesse Prinz served as her faculty advisor on the SURF project. At that point, Leah planned to go to graduate school in Philosophy. Now she’s a third year neuroscience Ph.D. student in the UNC Curriculum in Neurobiology. OUR Associate Director Donna Bickford had an opportunity to chat with Leah recently about her experiences as an undergraduate researcher and doctoral student.

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Leah shared that for her the most significant result of having the SURF was that it helped her believe in herself as a person who could come up with interesting research questions, find an advisor who thought the project was cool enough to be involved with, and succeed in a competitive funding process. After the SURF, she was on track to apply to graduate schools and pursue an advanced degree in Philosophy. Leah was warned that grad school admission was ultra-competitive in her discipline and she’d formed the perception that she’d need either a publication or a major conference presentation to be taken seriously as a candidate. She was accepted to present a paper at the North Carolina Philosophy Society annual conference; she gave the paper the spring of her junior year. Leah says she discovered at the conference that the UNC Philosophy Department is fairly atypical in its interest in cognitive issues and that her passion for experimentation would be better suited elsewhere. Although she did write an Honors thesis in Philosophy, exploring morality as a secondary quality and whether psychopaths have moral agency, Leah decided not to move on to graduate school in the discipline.

Leah then took a class with Dr. Sabrina Burmeister and became interested in neuroscience. She connected with the TA for the course, Kimberly Carpenter Cox, and Leah and Kimberly devised a plan to turn a philosophy major into a competitive applicant to neuroscience PhD programs in one summer. Leah notes that the SURF experience gave her the confidence to switch fields; it wasn’t easy, but she knew she could succeed. Leah refers to that summer as “science boot camp” – she took classes and she also did research in Dr. Josephine Johns’s lab. Leah describes her initial work in the lab as “grunt-work” as she spent the summer coding videos of rats and their maternal behaviors (as a volunteer), but the diligence and commitment she demonstrated earned the trust of Dr. Johns and the senior graduate students in the lab and she then had the opportunity to do more independent research. This led to her second Honors thesis, in Psychology, which examines the effect of prenatal cocaine exposure on oxytocin receptor levels.

Leah was able to leverage her undergraduate research experience in additional ways. She was one of the students who represented UNC at the annual ACC Meeting of the Minds conference and presented her SURF research there. She found the experience very satisfying, relating that this is the “only time I ever got a standing ovation.” Leah also found the conference a great opportunity to network and build relationships; she still keeps in touch with people she met at that conference. And, Leah was invited by OUR Founding Director Dr. Pat Pukkila to serve as one of the original OUR Ambassadors, which created an avenue for her to provide information about undergraduate research to interested students and to help them develop strategies to access research experiences.

When Leah attended her graduate school interviews, she was surprised to find that interviewees were most interested in talking about her undergraduate research experience and her SURF and honors theses projects. These major research projects helped her stand out from other applicants and contributed to her acceptance to graduate school.

Leah enthusiastically pointed out that of the 12 people in her cohort, 10 are women; thus she’s contributing to efforts to reduce the gender disparity in science disciplines.

Leah is now part of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute Graduate Training program in Translational Medicine, working with research mentor, Dr. Spencer Smith, and clinical co-mentor Dr. Joseph Piven.  She studies autism and notes that although there are between 400-1000 genes implicated in autism, they manifest similar behavioral patterns. How do these mutations produce the cluster of behaviors that we call autism? Leah discusses the importance of beginning to think about disease in new ways, going beyond the mindset of single genes causing diseases to considering the larger impact of those genetic mutations on cortical circuitry. She’s digging into the actual disordered circuitry by investigating the development of visual circuitry in mouse models of autism. The Smith lab and Leah’s work in mouse models might provide ideas about what to look for in patients and thus impact clinical practice and protocols.

In a note of advice for prospective or current undergraduate researchers who are contributing to larger projects, Leah stresses that it’s extremely important for anyone doing undergraduate research to take responsibility for their work and to feel some sense of accountability for the project, even if it’s “just” a class project. She has seen students treat their work casually, not recognizing significance of what they’re doing and the impact it has on the larger project, which is often someone’s life work. Being a careful and responsible researcher is especially important for undergraduates who might want a letter of recommendation.

When asked if her future included clinical practice or a research path, Leah observed that she would like to stay in academics, and is certain that anything she does will include some component of community outreach. Leah finds it critically important to participate in efforts to communicate science to non-scientists. To that end, she is one of the contributors at a Museum After-Hours event at the Durham Museum of Life & Science. Brains will be held on October 17, 2013 (register here). Food trucks will be on hand and adult beverages will be available for purchase. There will be lots of different scientists in attendance talking about various aspects of brains and neuroscience. Leah will be discussing autism facts and myths, including debunking misperceptions about autism and vaccines.