Research has been a formative part of Amelia Ralowicz's undergraduate experience.
The Class of 2019 biology major has researched the cellular makeup of the malaria parasite Plasmodium falciparum during a National Institutes of Health (NIH) Summer Student Intramural Research Training Fellowship at the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health & Human Development in Bethesda, MD.
She has performed neurobiological research on the molecular biology of the common squid Loligo Pealei at the NIH Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, MA. And she has studied the interactions of different species of plant roots and created molecular probes, working in UMass Dartmouth professor Tara Rajaniemi's Root Lab.
Amelia's next step will be to pursue a PhD in neuroscience through the Program in Experimental and Molecular Medicine at Dartmouth College's Geisel School of Medicine, where she has been offered a full scholarship. The program is geared towards preparing students for a career in translational research, that is, research directly pertaining to human disease and health.
Amelia first became involved with the NIH through a summer position as a chemical safety assistant at the Marine Biological Laboratory. She used her networking skills to meet the scientists working there and to learn more about their research—including Josh Zimmerberg, who described his research with the squid brain. When Amelia began to ask detailed questions, Zimmerberg offered her the opportunity to join his lab for the remainder of the summer. While continuing her work in the chemical safety department, Amelia worked after hours and on the weekends in the lab.
"I was absolutely overjoyed," she said. "Most individuals would consider a 90-hour work week absolutely treacherous, but I had never been happier."
Exploring new areas of research, Amelia concluded the summer by discovering beta amyloid—the causative agent of neurodegenerative disorders—in the squid optic lobe.
"This opens up a whole new field of neurodegenerative research as it provides a new model organism for conducting research," Amelia said.
"It was the work in Dr. Rajaniemi's lab that really helped me get my foot in the door," Amelia said. Rajaniemi invited Amelia to join her roots lab and work on the molecular side of the roots project.
"Over the past 2 years, I have been continuously working to design molecular markers for 8 different species of plants and subsequently using these markers to then identify species in mixed soil samples from root competition experiments."
Additionally, Rajaniemi invited Amelia to be the teaching assistant for her experimental design class. "It was a fantastic opportunity. I am considering pursuing a career as a professor so having that experience gave me another leg up."
Within the next few months, Amelia will be publishing papers on all of these projects: the squid research, and the malaria research, and her work in the Dr. Rajaniemi's roots lab.
"I have had an amazing experience working with the faculty at UMassD," Amelia said. "Although the professors are busy with teaching, advising, and research, I was always able to find an opportunity to chat about anything at all. One of the things that really stood out to me was how the Biology Department professors would advise students.
"In my research with Dr. Rajaniemi and Dr. Robert Drew, I have never had a negative experience. Going into the research, I had not taken a genetics or ecology class but they were very patient when explaining to me the processes and reasoning behind the concepts our research was based on. I made sure to 'do my homework' and read the materials they recommended. Less than 7 months after I started the research, I was able present it in the Sigma Xi Research Exhibition at UMassD with confidence and assurance."
As she began to consider applying to graduate school, Amelia found a wealth of resources at UMassD.
"Dr. Jennifer Koop answered my countless questions about graduate school. She guided me all throughout my exploration of potential graduate schools, despite the fact I had never taken one of her classes. And Christine Peter, my Writing in the Biological Sciences professor, taught me how to read and write a scientific review article, a skill I use all the time now that I am involved in 3 different research projects. The learning environment she created fostered discussion and collaboration."
She also acknowledged the Career Center, the Writing & Reading Center, and the STEM Center, where she found help preparing for interviews, fine-tuning her CV (curriculum vitae, or resume), and crafting her personal statement.
Foundations for success
Two important skills that Amelia learned at UMassD have been instrumental in her research endeavors. The first is "knowing what questions to ask and how to answer them experimentally."
"Beginning in my freshman year in Dr. Winslow's Biology of Organisms class, we were challenged to make predictions about what would happen if we removed this protein from a cell or added this gene, "she said. "At first, I found this approach challenging, I now realize how valuable it is—it is the essence of biological research. Asking a question, making a well-thought-out and informed prediction (hypothesis) and then creating an experiment to test this hypothesis is central to a successful research experience."
"Another thing I found extremely helpful was learning how to write a good lab report," she added. "Now that I have worked in research labs and helped in writing up numerous publications, I am grateful that I was taught how to write a full lab report. For any student going into research, the end goal is a publication—which is actually a more advanced version of a lab report. Having this solid foundation has helped immensely while working in the field."
Discovering her passion
Amelia's dedication to neuroscience was sparked in her sophomore year, in her Psychology 101 class.
"I realized that I truly wanted to study the brain. It is the most complex object in existence. Nothing has puzzled scientists, philosophers, engineers, and doctors more than the brain has. I became hooked on understanding all the components that went into the brain and allowed it to work at the speed and metabolic level we experience it at every day. I knew that there was nothing else I could possibly ever feel the same passion for.
"My research has had a massive impact on both my education and future plans. After my first summer of research working with the squid optic lobe, I returned to school with a passion to learn everything I could. I went into my classes like a sponge, ready to absorb everything my professors had to say. I knew that what I was learning in my cell biology and genetics classes was going to have a very direct impact on my goal of going to graduate school. After having working in a lab and seen exactly what a 'day in the lab' consisted of, I knew that this was the career I wanted."
UMassD foundation for success
"I hope students see that what they are learning here at UMassD can be the jumping-off point for many opportunities," Amelia said. "I believe a sturdy foundation is critical in building a career, and this is exactly what I have received from UMassD: a foundational understanding of biology along with a deeper understanding of my particular fields of interest, cellular and molecular biology. I have also learned the foundation skills of networking and asking the right questions—something I seek to do for the rest of my life as a neuroscientist."