Interviews with Scientists: Jennifer Martin

Interviews with Scientists: Jennifer Martin
5 years ago

Interviews with Scientists: Jennifer Martin

Jennifer Martin is a fifth-year graduate student at the State University of New York at Buffalo in the Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology in the laboratory of Dr. David Dietz. She joined the University at Buffalo after receiving her Bachelor of Science in Chemistry from St. John Fisher College, where she studied the role of estrogen receptor antagonists to act as antifungal agents. Her current thesis project aims to understand the role of glial cells, specifically the oligodendrocyte progenitor cells, in preclinical models of opiate addiction and relapse.

Jennifer recently received the prestigious NIH Blueprint Diversity Specialized Predoctoral to Postdoctoral Advancement in Neuroscience (D-SPAN) Award which aims to support a defined pathway across career stages for outstanding graduate students who are from diverse backgrounds underrepresented in neuroscience research. You might remember Jennifer as one of our 2018 travel grant winners, and it was great to catch up with her again to hear how her career has progressed!

Hi Jennifer! Firstly, tell us a bit more about your PhD...

My PhD research focuses on understanding the cellular mechanism of opioid use disorder, specifically looking at drug-induced relapse-like, and motivated behaviors. Drugs of abuse hijack the mesolimbic dopamine system, so I’m particularly interested in how various cell types, which populate different regions within the reward pathway, are altered following exposure to heroin.

To address my research questions, I am using a preclinical model of addiction (self-administration) to study how structural plasticity in neurons within the nucleus accumbens is changed, and using tools such as viral-mediated gene therapy, restoring levels of proteins critical for maintaining structural integrity of neurons and assessing changes in relapse-like behaviors.

In a second project, which was the focus of my fellowship discussed below, I am studying how glial cells, specifically oligodendrocyte progenitor cells, are altered following heroin self-administration, and how we can target these differentiating cells (either to prevent or enhance differentiation) to prevent motivation to obtain drugs.

You recently received a prestigious award for your research (congratulations!) - can you tell us a bit more about that?

The award is the Diversity Specialized Predoctoral to Postdoctoral Advance in Neuroscience (D-SPAN) F99/K00 fellowship. This award provides up to six years of funding, two of which can be used in the predoctoral research phase, and four that can be used in the postdoctoral phase. In addition, the fellowship provides opportunities for career development to aid awardees in reaching their long-term career goal of becoming an independent investigator.

Writing the grant application was a really great experience because the Aims are structured differently from the traditional training grants. I had to talk about what progress I had made as a graduate student, thus far (Aim 1). Then I had to discuss what I had to accomplish for completing my PhD (Aim 2). This was probably the most beneficial element of the grant because it allowed me to focus on the projects I needed to do before I graduate, and helped me create a timeline of those experiments. And finally, I had to write an Aim 3 which focused on my postdoctoral phase. This helped me narrow down researchers I would be interested in pursuing for my postdoctoral research, as I had to discuss what qualities I was looking for in a mentor, and what research area I wanted to focus on. It made the search for a postdoctoral position so much easier!

How did it feel when you found out you'd won, and how will this have an impact on your future research?

It was really exciting to find out I was receiving the award! First, because I will be the first graduate student to receive the D-SPAN award at my University and second, because it will give me financial support for my postdoctoral training which will make me more competitive as a postdoctoral fellow.

Aside from the financial support, I had the opportunity to meet my fellow awardees and directors of the D-SPAN Award and I know that I have a new group of scientists who I can turn to for support and advice throughout the remainder of my career. Every scientist I have met as part of the D-SPAN has been so supportive in helping trainees reach their career goals, so I am excited to have them in my scientific journey for the next six years!

You're going to be the first identified Native American student graduating with a doctoral degree from your department, how do you hope that will impact other Native American women considering careers in STEM?

Working towards increasing diversity in STEM fields is really important and integral aspect of my academic career. As the saying goes: “lead by example.” I hope that I can serve as a role model not just for Native American women considering careers in STEM, but to any scientist from an underrepresented community. Everything I do in my career is as much for myself as it is to encourage the next generation of scientists, including my own sister, to never underestimate oneself and be confident of their capabilities!

Did you always want to be a scientist when you were younger, and why?

I love math and science, so I knew that I would end up in the STEM field. But when I was younger I really wanted to be a forensic scientist (yes, I watched a lot of CSI as a child and I even went to a CSI camp one summer!) I quickly learned that looking at blood really wasn’t for me, but I did like using science to try and solve a question – which is what I get to do in my PhD!

I really loved all of my science classes in high school, which led me to pursue my bachelors in chemistry. At the end of my undergrad, I knew I wanted to continue on to a PhD, but I wanted something that was more translational and involved looking at human conditions. This is what led me to UB to study the neurobiology of opioid use disorder.

What are you enjoying most about your PhD?

The thing that I love most about my PhD is the people that I’ve been lucky enough to meet! Through the last four-and-a-half years I’ve been lucky enough to have amazing postdocs, fellow graduate students, and undergraduates who make every day in the lab enjoyable. The laughs we have together are the memories that I will never forget!

I also love the scientific question I’ve been able to try and understand. As mentioned above, my dissertation research focuses on the neurobiology of opiate addiction, which is a current epidemic. So, the feeling that my research could make a huge difference in the world has been really gratifying. And I’ve been fortunate enough to learn a multitude of techniques, and have the opportunity to publish and write grants.

What do you think are the biggest challenges currently facing life scientists and their work at the moment?

One of the biggest challenges facing scientists is dissemination of our findings. We do a great job of writing up and publishing our findings for the scientific community but, as scientists, it is our job to make those findings known to the general public. It would be really great if we could find a way to publish small editorials focused on different disease states aimed at the general public so they know what advances have been made in different fields and how this will impact the future!

What advice would you give to someone just starting out with their PhD?

The road to a PhD is a long journey, so you need to make sure you find a good mentor. Finding someone who allows you the freedom to ask the questions that fuel your passion, who are actively engaged in science and are just as excited about new literature and findings in the field as you. And above all, someone who understands that science is a part of life and that a work-life balance is essential for every student and postdoctoral fellows’ happiness! Finding a good mentor will make all the difference to your PhD experience.

Tell us a bit more about what you’re working on at the moment...

Currently, I’m working on optimizing a technique that will allow us to sequence mRNA transcripts from individual cells. As I mentioned, my project looks at both neuronal and glial cells, and current whole cell RNA sequencing approaches would combine both cell types into a lysate. Being able to isolate individual cell populations would greatly enhance our understanding of how each population of cell respond to external stimuli (i.e. drugs of abuse).

What does a typical day in the lab look like for you?

On a typical day, my alarm goes off pretty early so that I can make it to the gym before heading into work. Once I get to work, I usually eat my breakfast and drink some coffee while answering emails and figuring out what has to get done that day. Then the rest of my day is spent in the lab or animal facility, running experiments, analyzing data, or writing my dissertation.

Outside the lab, what do you enjoy doing most?

Outside of the lab, I love going to the gym, and then counteracting everything I did at the gym by trying out new cupcake recipes (I do share some with the lab!) On the weekend, you can usually find me spending time with my family and fiancé, most likely with a new craft brew in my hand.

If you weren’t a scientist, what do you think you’d be doing?

I might open a bakery, since I love making cupcakes and cookies! But in all seriousness, I think I would probably have gone into the physical therapy. It is a combination of two things I am passionate about: science and exercise!

What is it about your field of research, or your current work, that gets you most excited?

What excites me most is that the field of opioid use disorder is still relatively new, so my research will be part of the findings that set the groundwork for the field. Substance use disorder is a multifaceted disease, so being an active part of the research community trying to unravel the complexity of the neurobiology of the disease state is really exciting.

Which scientists working today do you most admire, and why?

I don’t have one particular scientist that I admire most, but who I do look up to is those who have been able to find balance in their life. As a student, I really do struggle with finding a balance and often worry about trying to maintain some sort of balance in the future when I start a family. For this reason, I look up to every scientist who has been able to prioritize family while still being a successful scientist.

What’s your favorite science quote?

“Getting a PhD is learning more and more about less and less, until you know everything about nothing.”

What do you think is the greatest scientific discovery of all time?

I may be biased because of how relevant it is to my research project, but I think that RNA-sequencing has been one of the greatest advancements of all time. Being able to sequence the transcriptome of cells from different physiological conditions has opened the door for identifying critical molecular markers for such disease states and will greatly aid in the development and / or identification of therapeutics.

Thank you so much for speaking to us, Jennifer! We wish you all the best with your research, and congratulations again on your award!

Connect with Jennifer on LinkedIn here and on Researchgate here

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