Ashley Schmeling graduated from NMU in 2013 with a double major in Psychology and Sociology. She took the time from her busy schedule as a PhD student at the University of Michigan to update us on her life and share what she has learned with us.
Thank you for taking the time to talk to us, Ashley! What are you up to now?
I am just finishing up my first year in the Biopsychology PhD program at The University of Michigan. At Michigan, I work with Dr. Natalie Tronson in the Laboratory of Memory Modulation. Currently, I am working on a project examining sex differences in the molecular mechanisms underlying consolidation of fear-associated memory. I am particularly interested in breaking down the complex process of how memories are stored and changed and in understanding at what time points and by what mechanisms this process differs between sexes. I am excited about contributing deeper insight to this question through my graduate work.
From left: Elissa Donzis (postdoc); Ian Speirs (Manager Extraordinaire); Natalie Tronson; and Ashley Schmeling (grad student)
How did you get there from here?
I obtained a B.S. in both Psychology and Sociology from Northern Michigan University. I started off my journey in research when I was a freshman and wanted something more than just attending classes and working at my retail job at the time. After seeking advice from several faculty members, it was after talking to a graduate student and hearing of the lab that he was a part of that first led me to Dr. Adam Prus’s Neuropsychopharmacology Laboratory. I began in the lab by helping graduate students with several projects and learning the major questions this lab was pursuing. By the end of my first academic year at NMU, I became the colony manager, managing the daily needs of animals in the lab. After my first year, I was able to begin my own research project, in which I assessed the effects of the neurotensin-1 receptor agonist PD149163 on memory performance in Brown Norway and Long Evans rats. It was through the McNair Scholars program that this research was made possible.
After completing my study, McNair provided me the opportunity to present my work at The Society for Neuroscience conference in New Orleans, Louisiana as well as McNair affiliated conferences at Berkeley and The University of North Texas. The summer before my senior year at Northern, I made a list of schools to which I was interested in applying and faculty I was interested in working with and began to get into contact with them. That summer I was also able to visit many of these schools through McNair trips and I am confident that being able to network with these faculty through a visit, at conferences, or in a phone call left a lasting impression. I applied to 13 PhD programs hoping that one would accept me, and was very pleased to see my hard work pay off, as the interview invites continued to pour in, and to later find that I was accepted to 9 PhD programs. I encourage everyone to never sell themselves short and to keep telling people your goals and what you plan to do, because if you want something and put in the effort to pursue it, you will get there.
How is graduate school going? How does it compare to your undergraduate experience? How did you land where you are? Any advice to our McNair students based on what you learned about the whole application process?
Graduate school is tough, but always rewarding. The most significant change from undergraduate to graduate school is the stronger focus on research and expertise in your area of research; classes are no longer the main focus. I have to say that I love being a graduate student in the Biopsychology area at UMich; I can honestly say that not a single day goes by in which I am not challenged. Graduate school is like a roller coaster ride or a strong balance of sorts; some days I feel extremely accomplished, intelligent and on top of the world and other days I feel humbled and reminded of the vast amount of knowledge that I have left to learn. But, it is in these humbled moments that I find much of my motivation.
Most people enter graduate school with a cohort of people. While at the beginning it may not seem as such, this cohort will become very close, you will not be alone in graduate school because graduate school is unique in that most people will not be from the area and will be in the same situation as yourself.
The best advice I can give for applying to graduate schools is to plan early, give yourself the same amount of time as would devote to a 4-6 credit course; that might mean taking a lighter load that semester. Contact faculty in early-midsummer and remain in contact through the application process, talk to them face to face whether it be through Skype or in person. Set deadlines for yourself and apply early and send your application to the faculty with whom you are interested in working; be persistent and don’t be afraid to “bug” them, faculty are busy and need reminding, and most importantly, be confident, you have done the hard work to get into graduate school and through McNair you have the research experience.
If you could do it over, what would you change about your undergraduate years, your McNair experience, or the path that led you where you are today?
I would not have changed much, if anything at all. I had a great experience at NMU, I got involved with research early on and strongly encourage beginning as soon as possible. One thing I can say though, is that I underestimated myself and was surprised by the number of graduate schools I was accepted into. Many McNair students, such as myself, may be the only person in their family pursuing higher education and it is easy to sell yourself short; don’t do this. Do pick “safety schools” when applying to graduate school, but always, always, shoot for the stars.
What are your plans for the future?
While I am open to the many opportunities that graduate school will present to me, I am focused on obtaining a future career in academia as a professor in psychology and neuroscience.