As a freshman at St. Thomas, Stephanie Garcia participated in a J-Term field research internship in Maui where she studied humpback whales. Since then, she has known she wants to pursue a Ph.D. in neuroscience.

Throughout her four years here, Garcia, who graduated this year with a B.S. in neuroscience, dedicated herself to the pursuit of her goal, taking full advantage of the plentiful research and grant opportunities St. Thomas has to offer, as well as the small class sizes that allowed her to get to know her professors and develop mentor-level relationships. Equipped today with an impressive resume of formal research and presentation experience, Garcia is bound for Rutgers University in Newark, New Jersey, which offered her a fully funded scholarship to pursue a Ph.D. in its Biomedical Sciences program.

Tell us more about your research interests and what your next year will look like.

After I returned from a summer spent studying primates in the Peruvian rainforest, I realized I wanted to make a larger contribution to the scientific community. I felt that I could better attain that in the biomedical industry, so I switched from strictly behavioral science to the molecular neuroscience track.

At Rutgers, I will be on the Molecular Biology Genetics Cancer track of the multidisciplinary Biomedical Sciences Ph.D. program. I do three laboratory rotations with different professors before I start working on my thesis. My current research interests include tumor metastasis, beta-amyloid plaque formation in Alzheimer’s Disease and the preventative benefits of living a healthy lifestyle, and neuroendocrinology. In that regard, Rutgers is an excellent fit for me because I’ll have the freedom to pursue any of my many interests in biomedical research.

How did St. Thomas prepare you to get a full scholarship for your Ph.D. program?

With our small class sizes, I have been able to get to know professors very well. I have learned about different research projects and I took every opportunity given to me to get involved. The Excel! Research Scholars program trained me to be a professional researcher, Grants and Research Office funded me, and my mentors gave me advice and guidance.

Getting fully funded for a Ph.D. in the biomedical sciences is a rarity and extremely competitive, especially as an undergraduate jumping right onto the Ph.D. track. The best thing I did was take advantage of research opportunities by reaching out to professors, inquiring about their interests and asking if I could join their research group. The next best thing I did was take advantage of the funding opportunities here at St. Thomas and the research programs, in my case the Excel! program and Collaborative Inquiry. The last thing I did that really aided me in getting funded was presenting my research every chance I could at every conference I could! I was able to meet the director of my current Ph.D. program, and putting a face to a name really makes your application more competitive.

What kinds of research and/or extracurricular activities were you involved in at St. Thomas?

I have been an educational assistant in the Psychology Department (neuroscience program) for two years now, and I was also a laboratory assistant for general chemistry. Freshman year the internship studying whales in the field led me to pursue research with Dr. Tim Lewis (Biology Department) where I was a part of “Team Turtle,” on which I tracked turtles one winter.

I then branched off and expressed my interest in conservation research to Dr. Sarah Hankerson in the neuroscience program. That led to my gorilla project, funded through Excel!, in which I examined the impact visitors have on the endangered species. I presented that research at the annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students (a prestigious research conference for individuals interested in pursuing a graduate degree in biomedical sciences). I also presented my findings at the International Primatology Society research conference where I had the opportunity to meet and talk about research with Jane Goodall!

After these experiences I helped Dr. Hankerson with various projects and ended up taking a serious interest in evolutionary neuroscience. Our next project was examining the coevolution of snakes and primates. Essentially snakes and primates coevolved over 60 million years ago and researchers think the reason primates are able to detect fast-moving and threatening stimuli is because snakes were a huge predatory threat. I submitted a Collaborative Inquiry grant, received the funding and, with a psychology student, carried out this multidisciplinary research project in the fall of 2016.

In addition to the plethora of research experience I’ve had here at St. Thomas, I was a part of the Boxing Club and UST Sustainability Club.

Who has been an influential teacher?

Two professors who influenced my career are Dr. Hankerson and Dr. Afshan Ismat (also in the St. Thomas neuroscience program). I would not be as prepared for graduate school as I am now without Dr. Hankerson, who really has taken me under her wing and took a vested interest in my research career. She cultured me into the researcher I am today, giving me the freedom to conduct independent research, analyze it and present at conferences around the world.

Dr. Ismat opened my eyes to the endless possibilities in cellular and molecular biology and made the four- to five-hour labs running blots and immunohistochemistry really fun. I think having a professor who gives the students freedom to explore the techniques we discuss and apply learned material, and also is full of energy and passion, makes for an extremely positive and beneficial learning environment.

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