Elizabeth K. Lucas
GS: Where are you from?
EL: Roanoke, Alabama
GS: What degree will you receive and when?
EL: I expect to receive a Ph.D. in Psychology with a concentration in Behavioral Neuroscience in Summer 2011.
GS: How long have you been at UAB?
EL: I have been at UAB for 7 years, receiving a B.S. in Psychology in 2005 and working on my doctoral degree.
GS: What is your research?
EL: My project focuses on the transcriptional regulation of inhibitory interneurons during brain development. During my first two years, I found that the transcriptional coactivator PGC-1alpha is required for the expression of the interneuron-specific calcium binding protein parvalbumin in the forebrain. This finding is “sexy,” so to speak, for two main reasons. First, parvalbumin-positive interneurons control the activity of large populations of principle neurons throughout cortex and hippocampus and are thought to be the driving force behind gamma oscillations in the brain. Second, PGC-1alpha is highly inducible by environmental stimuli, so it offers an avenue by which genes interact with the environment to cause long-term deficiencies in parvalbumin expression, as seen in a variety of neuropsychiatric and neurodevelopmental disorders. In the future, I will be determining the intrinsic firing characteristics of cortical interneurons in PGC-1alpha deficient mice as well as exploring environmental stimuli that cause PGC-1alpha expression to plummet and measuring long-term consequences of parvalbumin deficiency.
GS: What made you choose UAB for your graduate studies?
EL: As I received my undergraduate degree from UAB, I already knew that it was “the” up-and-coming institution for the study of neuroscience. I am very happy with my choice, as we have recruited many of the top names in neuroscience research, and I am able to collaborate with many of them.
GS: Have you received any awards or honors?
EL: I have received the Civitan Emerging Scholar Award.
GS: Who was your greatest influence here at UAB and why?
EL: Rita Cowell, my mentor. I have known Rita since she came to UAB fresh out of her postdoc from the University of Michigan. Since her arrival, I have been able to witness her build a lab from scratch while balancing family life with her husband and two children. As a woman in science, it has been really inspiring for me to see firsthand that I don’t have to sacrifice family goals in order to succeed as a principle investigator in this game of science.
GS: What is your motivation in your academics/research?
EL: Really, I find the everyday aspects of science to be rewarding – like obtaining small errors bars on my qPCR data or getting a clean band on a Western blot. I think you have to find the little things to be somewhat rewarding because “big” results come so infrequently.
GS: What are your plans after graduating and for the future?
EL: I would like to stay in academia. I plan to do a postdoc, then climb the ladder to principle investigator of my own lab.
Elizabeth’s advice for other graduate students:
I think that everyone, at some point in their graduate career, wants to give up and try something else. I was dead set on quitting and going to law school for a few months, but I am glad that I didn’t because I wouldn’t have been able to see all of my hard work blossom into a real project with real implications for people with neurological and psychiatric illness.