Elise Westhaver '24 How My Research Program Reinforced My Future Goals

This summer I was fortunate to be a part of Albert Einstein College of Medicine and Mercy College’s joint Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU). 

This was Einstein’s first year hosting a REU program.  I had been trying to gain research experience outside of Scranton and talked with upperclassmen, who had been able to participate in REU and MSTP-prep programs.  The upperclassmen I talked to told me about a website with every REU program in the US that students can apply to.  I didn’t begin looking at the list early enough and missed many deadlines, so I only applied to five programs.  Einstein was the only program that accepted me, but I was happy that I had even gotten in as a freshman applicant.  There were 500 applicants for Einstein’s program and 10 of us were selected to participate (~2.5% chance of acceptance). 

I encourage anyone looking to gain research experience at one of these programs to begin applying as early as possible, so you increase your chances of acceptance. 

My Experience

Due to world circumstances, Einstein chose to host their REU virtually.  The program was 8-weeks long and all participants were paid to participate.  In addition to being a part of the REU, I was also enrolled in Einstein’s Summer Undergraduate Research Program (SURP) where I collaborated with six other undergraduate students from various colleges on mini research projects.

 My job this summer was to join a lab at Einstein where I would work with a PI on research, participate in the SURP meetings, and sit in on faculty lectures to learn about research at Einstein.  I joined Dr. Kamran Khodakhah’s lab and was partnered with a post-doc in his lab, Maritza Onate.  Maritza had been working on neuroanatomy, specifically cerebellar projections.  I was given twelve mice brains, that had been imaged, and I analyzed cerebellar projections from the deep cerebellar nuclei (DCN) to the ventral tegmental area (VTA) in the midbrain.  I used imaging software to count the number of cells that were found in the VTA, differentiating between dopaminergic neurons and non-dopaminergic neurons.  I also created graphs, showcasing various aspects of the projections, that I presented to the lab and the heads of the REU program.

 At the end of the program, I presented a poster of all of my work from the summer to the REU program.  I also asked Maritza and Dr. Khodakhah to stay on in the lab, as the work that I had been doing was new to the field and I wanted to see what the final conclusions were.  At this point, I can be given a set of brain images, order them from most anterior to most posterior, delineate the VTA, and analyze the images on my own.  I learned much about neuroanatomy, what graduate school is like, and how to approach research.

How My Classes Prepared Me

The Neuroscience program at Scranton prepared me fairly well for the program.  I had been fortunate enough to take Cellular and Molecular Neurobiology in the spring, in which I learned about research methods that the REU lab I joined utilized.  That class came in handy when I sat in on Neuroscience-based lectures and journal clubs. 

I also had a well-developed background of reading research articles from Neuro 111 and my own research, which was essential for the SURP program.  However, the REU and SURP program knew that its students probably didn’t know everything about Neuroscience and were extremely helpful whenever I didn’t understand something. 

My advice is just go into it with an open mind and never assume that you don’t know enough to be in the lab: everyone there is in the same boat.

What I Learned About Myself

The program has shown me several important things for my future career.  One, while I didn’t mind counting cells for hours, I do not want to work in a neuroanatomy lab of my own.  It showed me that this area of research isn’t something that I love and reinforced my passion for my own area of research. 

Two, I love to do research.  I was content with counting cells and I stayed on in the lab because I wanted to see the end result.  Not knowing how the experiment ended would have bothered me and I am super grateful to the Khodakhah lab for allowing me to stay on. 

Three, with this newfound knowledge, my career goal of M.D/Ph.D. was reinforced.  After talking with MSTP (NIH funded MD/PhD programs) students at Einstein, my post-graduation plan has slightly shifted from applying to MD/PhD programs to applying to MSTP programs, but the overall goal of becoming a MD/PhD is the same.

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