Entries in Jaclyn (4)


How to Pick a Graduate Advisor as Told by Ben Barres

Graduate school has been on my mind lately. Between studying for the GRE to picking graduate programs to looking into labs I may be interested in joining, the process which will ultimately determine where I will spend more than five years of my young adult life seems daunting. I am looking for advice from people who have been through it, from what I can read online, and from my general experience in two different labs.

My undergraduate research advisor at NC State (shout-out to Dr. Troy Ghashghaei) sent me this article in an e-mail when it came out last fall. I read through it and thought it was brilliant. I recently took another look in the context of graduate school applications and I think this article is a great read for any student interested in graduate school.

Ben Barres, a professor of Neurobiology and Developmental Biology at Standford University, published an article in Neuron entitled “How to pick a Graduate Advisor.” (Barres, 2013) In this article, Barres talks about finding both a good scientific advisor and a good mentor – a task which he thinks can be challenging for a new grad student. Finding the right mix is a key ingredient for becoming a successful scientist. Ben shares his experiences and insights on how to pick a graduate advisor based on mentoring ability and scientific ability. Scientific ability can be measured using the H-index (a measurement based on number of publications and the number of times each has been cited in the literature). Mentorship ability can be measured with a proposed M-index which averages the H-indices of his/her former students. While the process is not perfect, this article is definitely worth a thorough look. I know I will be taking the ideas to heart when I pick my graduate mentor.

For further reading see: Barres, B.A. (2013). Neuron 80, 275–279.


Can Dancing Improve your Ability to Remember?


A few weeks ago I was on the Green line heading to North Station when I realized that a young woman a few seats away was carrying a pair of tap shoes. My dance background is quite strong, but I haven’t put on my tap shoes in three years. I first started dancing at age three when my mom, some-what frustrated with my high-energy antics, signed me up as a way to tire me out. When I was packing for my summer in Boston, I brought my tap shoes because I knew I wanted to get back into it.

Long story short, I stopped this woman after we got off the train. She recommended a studio for me to look up, and I have been going to tap class once a week ever since.

What surprised me the most about getting back into my shoes was my ability recall dances that I have not seen or performed in years. My dance memory is far better and more accurate than most of my memory. I can even recall dances that I learned for the first time over a decade ago.

Upon investigating the connection between dancers and good long-term memory, I wanted to know what happened in the brain in response to high-intensity dance training and if there were changes in way new long term memories are created or stored. I found that studies have shown that dancers are able to use mental imagery better and with higher reproducibility than non-dancers even in laboratory settings (Blasing et al., 2012). Many areas of the brain are activated during motor learning, included many overlapping areas which could improve devoted concentration and therefore is thought to create a stronger memory. In a case-study, dancers were able to recall dances learned from over three years previously (Steven et al., 2010). The brain function behind long-term kinestetic sequence memory (dance is considered a sequence of steps) is currently not known and is difficult to study. Most studies have focused on ways to disrupt this long-term memory and have not been designed to determine how the disruptions are occurring in the brain, perhaps due to limited tools to study the brains of humans till relatively recently.

Scientists have used both fMRI and PET to study the brains of dancers, but it doesn’t appear that there is much current study using these techniques on long-term dancer memory. Typically, subjects have to remain as still as possible in the large scanners required for these studies. However, a group recently found a way to let ballroom dancers move through the steps with their feet on an inclined apparatus while lying in a PET scan (Blasing et al., 2012). They were able to see activated regions of the brain which were exclusively associated with dancing. This could open the door to more kinesthetic memory based studies using PET and fMRI.


For more information on what we do know about the brain and dance see: Nerurocognitive Control in Dance Perception and Performance (Blasing et al., 2012)

For more information on dance and long-term memory see: Backwards and Forwards in Space and Time: Recalling Dance Movement from Long-Term Memory (Steven et al., 2010)




Things I have Learned about Boston

1)      It is perfectly fine to jaywalk. Seriously. I’ve even seen a cop do it.

2)      But, be careful of the bikers. They usually do not stop for red lights, meaning that you can easily get run over. (Two close shaves thus far.)

3)      Once you look like you know where you are going, people will ask you for directions. (Four people and counting.)

4)      Pronunciation is everything. It makes out-of-towners stand out. (ex. Lechmere is pronounced Leach-mere).

5)      Eventually, someone will make fun of your southern accent – even if you only have a little one. (My favorite voicemail. Ever. : “Hey y’all, it’s Occupational Health. You must be from North Carolina….” Busted.)

6)      You can buy really cheap food at Haymarket – like 60 tomatoes for 6 dollars. (It weighs about 15 pounds in case you were wondering and, with the help of four girls, can make huge amounts of guacamole, salsa, and tomato sauce. It will take an entire day to cut them up.)

7)      The South End is not abbreviated as SouthE, but Southie. Strangely, there is not a similar rendition for the North End.

8)      Traffic is terrible - especially when it’s raining.  The worst traffic I’ve experienced is five blocks per hour. If I had walked it would have taken 10 minutes tops.

9)      The mayor of Boston is Thomas M. Menino. The only reason I know this is because his name is literally plastered on half of the signs and buildings I have seen. They mayor of Raleigh might want to look into that.

10)   Boston is a wicked fun city (wicked is a new word I am trying to pick up to hide my tendency to say y’all).  It’s united in so many ways and can be summed up in just two words: Boston Strong.



Research vs. Coursework

Before I delve into my topic today, I’d like to introduce myself. My name is Jaclyn Smith and I am a junior in Biochemistry and Polymer & Color Chemistry at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, North Carolina. Needless to say, my first time in Boston was last week when I got here to start my internship with the Hooker Research Group. It is my first big-city experience, so I constantly feel a little bewildered as to where I am. Hopefully in a couple weeks I’ll know my way around Boston pretty well. I am still deciding my future plans after I finish my undergraduate degree, but am thinking about graduate school or medical school. I have it on good authority that Jacob is an excellent resource to help figure these things out. I'll keep you posted on how it goes.

For my project in the lab, I am working on synthesizing a potential PET imaging agent with Genevieve, who is a Post Doc here in the Hooker Research Group. This is my first true research experience, as most of my previous experience was gained in class based laboratories. Most of these are one-or-two credit hour courses with protocols already written out and ready to follow. However, those procedures are for learning and confirming principles. One of my professors eloquently called them, “not real experiments, but exercises,” meaning that there was a correct answer to be discovered while mastering a technique. For example, an exercise may be performed for the experience of using a pipet or seeing how a standard curve is made and used. It is quite useful to learn the basics and to illustrate concepts in a controlled, laboratory setting.

Research, on the other hand, is a quest to discover something in uncharted territory. Using literature as a guide, scientists develop an idea of what they want to achieve and use trial-and-error, intuition, and some luck to make it happen. There are no ‘protocols,’ but past experience is used to develop a plan of what the next steps may be. I jumped in on a project and am just learning the ropes, but Genevieve is guiding me through the process. With her help, I performed a reaction with an 85% yield and set up another reaction more independently today. It felt really good when I took my first NMR ever and confirmed I had the product. Genevieve has an obvious intuition for the chemistry of a reaction and can eloquently explain it but she usually has me explain it to her, ensuring my understanding of the experiment.

While I have enjoyed my lab-based classes in the past, I am finding the creativity involved in research quite appealing. The summer is just beginning, and I feel as though I have learned a ton about research already. It will be interesting to see what will happen in the next few weeks as I get more experience and have more chances to try reactions on my own.