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Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences

Student Profile: Sharon Stevens

Master
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Sharon Stevens
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Mentor: Matthew N. Rasband, Ph.D.
Undergraduate major: Neuroscience
Undergraduate school: University of New Hampshire

Why did you choose Baylor College of Medicine?

Before starting my graduate studies, I was a part of the IRTA post-baccalaureate program at NIH, where I expanded my research background in the laboratory of Lawrence A. Tabak, D.D.S. Ph.D. in the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research (NIDCR). My experience in the intramural research community at NIH focused my decision of graduate programs to schools with missions of high-quality science, collaboration, and translation with the ability to provide resources and a training experience to achieve those missions. 

I chose to pursue my graduate studies in the Neuroscience Program at Baylor College of Medicine for a number of reasons. Baylor is located in the largest medical center in the world, the Texas Medical Center, allowing close proximity to 54 medicine-related institutions, including several other biomedical research institutions and world-renown hospitals. This creates an environment that fosters collaborations and enables a rapid response to changes in biomedical research, such as adapting new scientific techniques and training approaches. Furthermore, the interconnectedness of Baylor and physicians produces a dynamic environment and assists the movement of scientific discoveries from bench to bedside. Additionally, state-of-the art core facilities prevents scientific discoveries from being limited to resources available within one lab, and Baylor’s commitment to training well-rounded scientists was clear through its investment in a career development center that provides training and resources to enable students to continue on to meaningful careers post-graduation.  

When comparing different graduate schools, I was drawn to the unique design of the coursework in the Neuroscience Program at Baylor College of Medicine. The study of neuroscience can be divided into many different subfields, and the program has the mission to provide all students with strong backgrounds in the many areas of neuroscience, regardless of their destined area. The program accomplishes this by having the first year be class-intensive; with courses in areas of molecular and cellular biology, genetics, electrophysiology and biophysics, imaging, behavior, system neuroscience, computation, and modeling. This results in students having the advantage of being able to understand and contribute to a range of scientific discussions, not just those within their particular subfield. Overall, I decided to pursue my graduate studies at Baylor, since it would provide excellent research opportunities and a well-rounded education.
 

What is your research interest?

Proteins are the functional unit of living organisms, they control nearly every function of a cell, and carry out dynamic processes throughout the nervous system. However, proteins do not operate in isolation, protein-protein interactions form complexes and enable these molecules to perform more intricate functions. Conversely, these interactions can be disadvantageous, disruption to a single protein can lead to cascading effects, and protein dysregulation has been implicated in nearly all diseases of the nervous system. While large scale screens are invaluable, yielding hundreds to thousands of proteins involved in a common pathway or disease, it is crucial that we have the basic understanding of these proteins in order to further these data and elucidate the molecular mechanisms responsible. Moreover, normal development and neuronal function depends on these molecules, thus our understanding of the brain is limited by our understanding of the underlying proteins.

My current research seeks to address these ideas by determining the role of ankyrin-R (AnkR) in the nervous system, which despite being implicated in multiple neurological diseases, has remained largely unstudied. The research performed during my PhD will provide fundamental information on the expression patterns, interactions, and functions of AnkR in the nervous system by conducting detailed molecular, cellular, anatomical, and behavioral analyses. Following these studies, I can initiate research projects aimed at discovering AnkR’s contribution to neurological disease. Thereby, increasing our understanding of AnkR will lead to increased understanding of neurological function and disease. In the future, I plan to continue studies to elucidate the functional role of proteins in development and disease through top-down and bottom-up approaches.

Why did you choose your mentor?

At Baylor, incoming students are required to rotate through different laboratories prior to deciding their thesis lab, a practice that empowers students with first hand experiences for this important decision. After deciding to complete my graduate work at Baylor, I immediately set up my first rotation in the laboratory of Matthew N. Rasband Ph.D., a leading expert in the electrogenic domains, including the axon initial segment and nodes of Ranvier. His molecular and cellular neuroscience lab focuses on determining the molecular mechanisms underlying the organization of neuronal domains. Upon review of his publication record, I became increasingly interested as it became apparent the goal of the laboratory was not merely to describe phenomena, but to determine the underlying molecular mechanisms responsible. I was also impressed by the lab’s philosophy to learn and develop any technique necessary to answer their questions of interest, a philosophy I’m sure will prove useful in my studies of AnkR.  

During my rotation, I was able employ skill sets I already possessed, but also saw many opportunities to expand upon these skills and grow as an experimental scientist. Through my rotation and coursework, I came to admire Dr. Rasband’s passion for science, devotion to training, ability to communicate complex ideas in a clear and concise manner, and strong encouragement of independent thinking. Having experience in laboratories which allowed significant independence in my research, I was drawn to Dr. Rasband’s balance of scientific and professional direction with experimental and analytical independence. Ultimately, I decided to purse my dissertation research in the Rasband lab because of Dr. Rasband’s commitment to provide thorough training beyond technical competency, data collection, and analysis. Under his mentorship, I am developing skills that will enable me to be an effective neuroscientist, competent in experimental design theory and all forms of scientific communication.  

What are your career plans?

Ultimately, I would like to be an independent research scientist through pursuit of a tenure-track position at a biomedical research institution. I enjoy scientific thought and inquiry, mentoring students in the biomedical sciences, and working to solve difficult problems through ingenuity and scientific collaboration. Therefore, following my graduation, I intend to pursue a post-doctoral position in a molecular neuroscience laboratory that complements and expands upon the skills I will develop during my graduate work. Seminars at Baylor College of Medicine and the Texas Medical Center, as well as attendance of professional meetings throughout my graduate studies have provided opportunities to present my research and develop communication with laboratories of interest for this next stage in my career. Upon joining a post-doctoral laboratory, I will be able to perform a range of molecular experiments with ease and familiarity by employing the skill set gained from my graduate studies, supplying time to acquire new techniques. By expanding my technique repertoire through experience in a variety of techniques employed in neuroscience, I can better address my long-term research interests.