How did I get here? My PhD Story

Everyone who finds themselves in a PhD program has a completely unique story behind how they got there. Today I want to share my PhD story with you all, explaining everything from my background, to when I fell in love with research, to where I am in my PhD journey today.  I hope through my unconventional story into the biomedical sciences I can encourage and inspire everyone to look at science in a new way and maybe tackle your own future in scientific research!

I grew up in a rural Alabama town and attended a regular public high school. While I was in attendance the school didn't place a lot of emphasis on STEM (Science. Technology. Engineering. Mathematics.) fields. By the time it came for me to graduate high school, I decided I wanted to be a physical therapist just because of all my experience with sports injuries as a cross country athlete. It wasn't very long after I was accepted to the University of Alabama at Birmingham's (UAB) Global and Community Leadership Honors Program (GCLH) that I changed my mind about my college major to switch from Biology to Psychology. This switch came from a GCLH interview during which the interviewer asked if I had ever considered Psychology after seeing my face light up when I spoke of my experiences as a summer camp counselor. With the infamous logic (or lack thereof) of a college student, I changed majors and took Psychology 101 my freshman year at UAB, much to my parents' dismay (though thankfully now I think we can all have a laugh about it). It was in this class that I heard of neurons for the first time and the synaptic connections between cells that essentially make us who we are. As I took more and more psychology classes I learned more and more about the field of Neuroscience and became fascinated with the concepts I was learning. I could have switched majors and started studying neuroscience instead, but for reluctance to fall behind in course load and graduate late, I decided to tailor my psychology major to include more neuroscience courses without making the official switch. This was pretty easy because psychology and neuroscience are very closely related and many of the classes required for the two majors were similar. 

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In my sophomore year of college I became a part of the Psychology Honors Program because I had begun tossing around the idea of becoming a clinical psychologist, which would require an advanced degree of either a Master's or Doctoral degree. The honors program boasted better preparation for higher level education. One of the requirements of the program was to take part in scientific research by volunteering in a research lab. At first I joined a lab in the Department of Psychology which studied social stigma faced by patients who had HIV. I greatly enjoyed the procedural aspect of research, but the lab wasn't the best fit for me and I wanted to understand more about the underlying pathology of diseases affecting the nervous system.

A friend of mine at the time was doing research related to neuroscience and showed me  a link to research faculty associated with the UAB School of Medicine. I was blown away by all the different possibilities and the variety of research areas just within the field of neuroscience itself. I joined a new lab in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neurobiology at the cusp of my junior year and it was here that I fell head over heels in love with research. The lab studied the transcriptional regulation of a particular type of inhibitory interneuron's activity. I learned how to label proteins within brain tissue that was mounted on microscope slides so we could see where these proteins were located in the brain. We used fluorescent antibodies that bound to the proteins we were interested in and could be seen through a special type of microscope (called a confocal microscope). When the tissue was excited with a wavelength of light that was specific to the fluorescent antibody being used you would see a fluorescence signal where that protein was located. I learned you could use multiple antibodies that had different excitation and emission spectra (are excited by and emit light at different/non-overlapping wavelengths) to see which proteins were found in a certain cell type (ie. neurons vs. interneurons vs. astrocytes etc).

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During my time in the lab I decided that research was something I wanted to spend my life doing, so I started applying to PhD programs during my senior year of college. I am actually extremely lucky for many reasons. The University of Miami (where I am now enrolled) was my top choice of graduate program because of a few neuroscience faculty whose research interested me the most out of everyone. I applied to at least 13 different universities, attended two interviews, and was accepted to the University of Miami. When you start graduate school you start by doing lab rotations. Rotations are short periods of time spent in a lab where you learn the basics about what they study and learning how to perform the techniques they use to answer their research questions. In a nutshell, it's a time where you get to sample several different lab environments and different research topics and eventually choose the lab that is the best fit for you. I am extremely lucky that I got to do three very good lab rotations and that I was able to do a rotation in the lab I was most interested in joining.

The lab was associated with two departments, primarily the Department of Physiology and Biophysics, but also the Department of Neuroscience. However, most of the research focus in the lab was based on the cardiovascular system and the activity of different voltage-gated ion channels. It was at this point that I had to make a choice. Oftentimes, the research interest of the lab in which you complete your PhD does not turn out to be the same topic you research during your own career (if you choose to do academic research). Though the research topic (cardiac physiology) was not what I considered myself passionate about, I knew the exact same concepts I learned in this lab could be applied to the ion channels found in the brain. Plus the lab environment was welcoming and I would be receiving arguably the best mentorship at the University of Miami. In the end, I decided the compromise of neuroscience research vs. mentoring was worth it and that I was still learning the exact techniques I came to graduate school with the intention to learn (electrophysiology- explained in my last post). Now I am in my third year and growing more and more as a scientist and I couldn't be more thankful!

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My PhD journey is probably much different than yours or anyone else's. Some of you may not even be on the PhD journey but are interested in science or why anyone would choose to do a PhD or research. No matter, what we can all learn from one another. My PhD journey has taught me not to limit myself based on whether or not I feel qualified or not. I learned what it is that I am passionate about and how to pursue it. I've also learned how to make the most out of every stage of my journey (though I still have quite a lot to learn)!

I hope you all learned something! I'd love you hear about your journeys or your questions. Reach out in the contact form!

Happy Sunday, all



Bree Watkins