Alumni Update – Kathryn Abrahamsson

We recently heard from McNair and NMU alumna Kathryn Arahamsson (’12) about her graduate school experience at the University of Tennessee – Knoxville. She had some great insight and advice for current McNair undergrads.

“My name is Kate Abrahamsson and I am an alumni of the Ronald E. McNair Scholarship Program at Northern Michigan University. I was a scholar of the program from 2010-2012 and performed undergraduate research with Dr. Erich Ottem. The McNair Program and my research experience solidified my interest in and boosted my confidence to apply to Ph.D programs.  Through some hard work and perseverance, I found myself moving from the shores of Lake Superior down to the Smoky Mountains to begin work on a graduate degree.

It’s hard to believe that I’m about to start my fifth year in the Biochemistry & Cellular and Molecular Biology Department at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. I absolutely love when I am asked about my research that focuses on the molecular mechanisms underlying the biological circadian clock of the brain, but I must say that the question I get asked the most is, “So, when are you going to graduate?” But what goes through my head when prompted with that question is:

Is graduation on my mind? Yes.

Have I made good progress toward graduation? Yes.

Is my research publishable? Working on that as we speak.

When will I graduate? I have vague idea.

Do I see myself graduating “soon”? YES!

Does my committee agree with this idea? (Stares blankly)”

You see, what I’ve come to learn as a result of experience as a graduate student is that each graduate story is unique. That’s why answering the graduation question is so hard.  There is no set time requirement for getting a doctorate. Each university has an average completion time, but that statistic comes from a pool of individual successes. I’ve found that the best way to prepare myself for graduation is speaking to those individuals. I then try to shape and develop myself according to their advice, all while staying true to myself.

I was excited to receive an email from Heather Pickett of the McNair Program, asking me what’s wonderful/not so wonderful about graduate school. I would like to elaborate on that question for a few different topics, topics that I deem important for surviving graduate school and seeing the light at the end of the graduation tunnel.

What’s wonderful about advanced course work?

My first year course work included an Advanced Protein Biochemistry class which was the most intellectually challenging course I took at UTK. I surpassed what I expected I was capable of understanding about protein interactions. After completing the required coursework for my degree, I selected courses that supplemented my interests, especially those founded in Neuroscience. What is also wonderful is that the professors of these courses treat you like a colleague and get just as excited about discussing what is on the fore-front of research.

What is not so wonderful is that departmental requirements may/may not satisfy the course requirements of the Graduate School, which is the entity that ultimately gives you your degree. So, you must check, double-check and then re-check that your elective courses make both entities happy.

What’s wonderful about preliminary exams?

Ahhhhh! The dreaded preliminary exam! Each university has it’s own form of preliminary exam. Most involve writing a mock-grant proposal, which is what our department requires, but we get to write ours based on our own research. Essentially, you spend about six weeks writing a 15 page grant that you submit to your five member committee, give a 40 minute presentation to the department on what you’ve written, and then defend your experimental choices and logic to your committee. What’s most wonderful about that experience is that I PASSED!

Seriously, though, it was time well spent thinking critically about the direction of my research and carefully planning experiments that will add to my dissertation project. Learning the in’s and out’s of grant writing is such a valuable skill. Faculty at large and small institutions continually apply for grants to fund their research. So, practicing how to write multiple grants is priceless.

What’s wonderful about mentorship and service?

This is the part of graduate school that I think most people overlook. Establishing a network of good mentors and volunteering for service, either on campus or off, helps you form your very own learning community. I’m lucky enough to have multiple mentors; my undergraduate and graduate advisors, other faculty, support staff from my fellowship program, and senior graduate students are all a part of my mentoring network. The best way to get where you want to go is to ask someone that’s experienced it first-hand. When I have trouble, I am so grateful that I can approach these individuals with whatever issue is at hand.  These individuals inspire me to help others achieve their goals.

One of my favorite volunteer experiences in graduate school so far was the “Biology in a Box” lesson that we brought to elementary school students that were enrolled in an after-school program. The program aims to benefit low-income students from at-risk homes in the greater Knoxville area by providing extra time and educational support for these children.  Being a low-income, first generation college student myself, the experience I had was very personal. Seeing students learn about DNA and chemistry was exhilarating! Volunteering allows you to forget about your goals and just have fun while helping your community.

 What’s wonderful about teaching?

Teaching is fun, rewarding, and a humbling experience. I’ve taught a discussion section for our Intro to Cell and Molecular Biology course and I’ve TA’d a few laboratory sections for our Physiology course. I’ve learned that students ask the BEST questions if given the opportunity to ask them. The classroom is where you get to see how diversity affects learning; students from different cultural backgrounds, socioeconomic status, age, race, religious affiliation, intellectual ability, gender, etc. etc. etc. can come together and help each other learn how to learn about science.

The not-so wonderful part is grading. Hours and hours of grading!  Also disciplining students for improper use of their laptops or cellphones during lecture courses has been a drag… so don’t do it yourself and be respectful!

What’s wonderful about research?

The main part of graduate school is your dissertation research. I feel that my research holds precedent over the rest of topics I have discussed. Your dissertation research will be the topic that defines five, six, seven years of your life. Sometimes experiments work, but most of the time they don’t. Failure is so frustrating, but persevering in the face of failure gives you strength as a scientist. Honestly, I think this is what graduate school is all about.

In order to add to the school of knowledge in your discipline, you have to push against boundaries. The boundaries will push back, sometimes setting you further back than what you anticipated. If you keep pushing, eventually the boundaries will fall. The result is your contribution of novel findings to science. You will know something that no one else has ever known before. You will be the expert, no one else, on your topic.

If your research goes well and you do find something novel, you get to present your work! For example, I found that these proteins called matrix metalloproteinase 2 and 9 are important for the maintenance of neuronal activity rhythms in the suprachiasmatic nucleus of the brain. No one’s done that before, so I get to present my research to my colleagues across the globe. I’ve presented posters and given talks at conferences like: the Society for Neuroscience Annual Meeting in San Diego and Washington DC; the Society for Research in Biological Rhythms in Big Sky, MT and in Palm Harbor, FL; and The International Workshop on Plasminogen Activation in Rome, Italy. Travelling to present your research is vital for your development as a graduate student. It’s the best way to receive feedback and expert advice on your work.

I could go on and on about what is wonderful about graduate school. The best part about my time here is finally being able to say, “I am a scientist” with confidence.

Thank you for reading about my experience, I hope you find something that you will find useful when you become a graduate student. ”

K.Abrahamsson

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Photo: Kate Abrahamsson presenting a talk entitled, “Inhibiting matrix metalloproteinases 2 and 9 alters circadian neuronal firing patterns in the suprachiasmatic nucleus” at the Society for Research in Biological Rhythms conference in May 2016.