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Graduate success in neuroscience research began at Carthage


February 22, 2014

Dana WattWhen Dana Watt ’10 came to Carthage in 2006, she knew what she wanted to do with her life: She was going to earn her degree and pursue a career training whales and dolphins.

After talking it over with psychology and neuroscience professor Penny Seymoure, she decided that a double major in neuroscience and biology would best help her achieve this goal.

That goal changed, however, after she took Research Methods in Neuroscience (NEU 2500) with Professor Dan Miller and realized she had a passion for laboratory science. She also nurtured an interest in classics, a subject in which she minored, and actively participated in the Carthage Debate Team. Combining her skills in logic and rhetoric with science was a natural fit, according to Dana. After all, science involves collecting evidence to make an argument about how nature works, she said, a process she practiced often at Carthage.

Pursuing her Ph.D. at Washington University

After graduation, Dana set her sights on contributing to biomedical advances in the study of nerve growth and regeneration, an important area of neuroscience that could help treat spinal cord injuries in the future. Currently, there are no effective treatments for such nerve damage that can result in paralysis. As a Ph.D. student in neurosciences at Washington University in St. Louis, Dana is part of an international group of researchers trying to solve this important problem.

This photograph of nerve cells was taken with a high-powered microscope in February 2014.This photograph of nerve cells was taken with a high-powered microscope in February 2014.Her doctoral project is examining the nerve cell structures called growth cones that play a role in the recovery of a cell from injury. She is conducting experiments to tease apart the components of the internal nerve cell framework, the cytoskeleton, using molecular biology and high-powered microscopes.

(Biology and neuroscience majors may be interested to learn that her work examines the role of a small GTPase in microtubule dynamics.)

After earning her Ph.D., Dana plans to pursue a postdoctoral fellowship to take on more research on the growth and regeneration of the nerve cell and the axons that are frequently damaged in spinal cord injuries. Eventually, she plans to either become a principal investigator and start up her own lab in industry or academia, or continue in laboratory science as a staff scientist in another investigator’s lab.

Advice for undergraduate science students

Dana has some advice for students interested in pursing graduate research in the sciences:

First, she advises Carthage students to apply early in their undergraduate careers for summer research positions, such as the SURE program and off-campus Research Experience for Undergraduate (REU) programs. When Dana was at Carthage, she spent one summer in a neuroscience research laboratory at Marquette University, an experience that expanded her skills set and made her a stronger applicant for graduate school.

Second, she advises Carthage students interested in careers in science and advanced degrees to find a technical position or research assistant job for at least one year before applying to graduate schools. This gives students time to assess what working in a science laboratory is like in an industrial or academic setting, and provides valuable experience, even opening new opportunities, when the time does come to apply to graduate school, she said.

Third, she recommends applying for the National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship, a prestigious national award that provides funding for graduate school. Dana was awarded an honorable mention in the NSF competition her first year of graduate school, and believes that writing an NSF application during her senior year at Carthage provided valuable experience to achieve success the following year. She also attributes the NSF for preparing her to write a pilot study grant for the internal Hope Center of Neurological Disorders at Washington University in St. Louis, which was well reviewed by a panel of expert scientists.

As Dana takes on the challenges of neuroscience research, she thinks back to the experiences she had at Carthage that made her exciting career path possible.

For more information about competitive summer research internships and the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, contact Dan Choffnes, Director of Student Fellowships,