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Center On Health Disparities

Gretchen Neigh, Ph.D.

This month’s Mentor of the Month conversation highlights the mentor-mentee relationships of Dr. Gretchen Neigh and her mentees Molly Hyer, Ph.D., Gladys Shaw, and Devin Evans.

GretchenNeigh headshot [View Image]

 

(COHD)  How did you begin your biomedical research career?

(N) It wasn’t my planned path. I had planned to be a veterinarian. I vividly remember focusing my 3rd grade “what I want to be when I grow up” project on veterinary medicine, and I did not deviate from that plan until most of the way through college. I worked at a veterinary practice for four years by that point, and I very much enjoyed the work and interacting with the animals. However, I struggled with the bad decisions I would see people making for their pets, and I knew long term that the career would burn me out. Growing up in a rural part of Pennsylvania, I didn’t really know about a wide range of careers in the biological sciences, so I wasn’t sure what to do when I decided veterinary medicine wasn’t for me. One of my professors at Washington and Jefferson College suggested that I might be interested in research. I didn’t really know what it meant to be a scientist – in a practical day-to-day sense, so I did a research internship part way through my senior year of college. I really enjoyed research and decided at the very last minute to apply to grad school. I had one shot at the GRE because it was a paper test and there was one time it was going to be offered before applications were due. Luckily, I scored well enough that I was able to apply. I decided to attend The Ohio State University. That was ’98 so it has been more than twenty years.

 

(COHDWhat is the ultimate goal of your research? 

(N)  We study the molecular mechanisms that mediate risk and resilience. Essentially our work is aimed at trying to determine why/how two people can go through the same traumatic experience and one is fine and one develops PTSD and metabolic disorders and other ailments. What is that deciding point in one’s biology that decides who gets sick after stress? Genetics are a part of it, but there’s more to it than just genetics. We try to take questions all the way from the functional, behavioral, level down to the molecular level. The goal is to understand these mechanisms so that ultimately we will be able to provide information about how to control the switch point between risk and resilience.

(COHD)  In looking at your mentees, what do you wish you knew at their stage of their careers?

(N) I have three stages of mentees and the advice is different at each stage. As an undergrad, I wish I had a better understanding of the breadth of careers that would allow me to contribute in the realm of biology and medicine. I did eventually stumble my way along to what was the appropriate path for me, but had I been a little more strategic and aware in the beginning, I could have gotten there a little more efficiently. As a graduate student, I wish I had a better appreciation for what I didn’t know. I had a little bit too much arrogance for my own good when I started graduate school because I had always been good at everything and never really failed. So there were times when I was dismissive of other peoples’ ideas or thoughts, potentials, paths, options, or just ways of doing things, because of this arrogance, that ended up costing me time in the long run. As a postdoc, I wish I had a better appreciation at the outset about how as a postdoc you’re growing your long term network. As a graduate student you’re very dependent on your advisor and certainly you have other people in your committee. As a postdoc, you don’t have a committee anymore. In some ways you become even more dependent on your advisor, but you actually need to be less dependent in the end, and that’s not a very clear path.  I wish I had a better understanding in the beginning, that you really need to be building your network and not just working in your lab – that you need to be looking for ways to grow and differentiate. I knew in theory I needed to do that, but I wish I had a better appreciation of how to do it and the importance of it.

 

(COHD) What do you hope to gain from the mentee/mentor experience?

(N) Working with other people, and working with mentees in particular, who have such very different experiences and backgrounds and grew up in an entirely different generation than I did, is very interesting and rewarding. They look at everything differently from me, and I just find it really fascinating. I think it makes science better when you’re interacting with people who have all these different viewpoints. They also keep me challenged and honest. Not in the sense that I would be fabricating data, but honest in the sense that I can’t be like ‘Oh, well this is the way that it is’ because at least one of them is going to push back and say ‘Wait a minute. What about this, this, and this?’ I enjoy that challenge. The reasons that I think are a little less selfish is that I really genuinely enjoy seeing people that I’ve worked with move along their career path. I would not have stumbled my way along to here if I hadn’t had really good mentors and generous mentors that helped me to find that path. They don’t have to choose the same path as me, but when I can see that I can help my mentees move along towards what they want to do, that’s success.

 

(COHD)  Describe the ideal mentor/mentee relationship.

(N)  A good mentor/mentee relationship has clear communication and an understanding of each persons’ goals. I think also being honest but in a constructive way is important. I’m not doing anyone in my group any favors if I see that there’s a problem and don’t correct it because I don’t want to hurt their feelings or don’t want to make them upset. That would be completely disserving. They’re here for me to coach them and guide them. So I think it’s important that I am honest and accurate and try to not just say you did this wrong, but here are the things you can do to try to get this back on track. And sometimes that means acknowledging that I don’t know how to fix it, but guiding the mentee towards someone who I think might be able to help. Realizing my own limitations and being able to sometimes mentor the person to find someone else is also very important. I think the mentee has to be forthcoming and willing to advocate for themselves. I might not know what they need. I try to ask and check in, in order to give opportunities for someone to tell me what they need, but ultimately, they have to tell me or I won’t know.

  

(COHD) What do you do when to relax away from the lab?

(N) I really enjoy time outdoors and being around the water. Hiking or kayaking with my family are always favorite activities for me.

 

(COHD) Do you still have animals in your life?

(N) I have two dogs and a cat. I’d have more if I could!

Molly Hyer, Ph.D., Gladys Shaw, Devin Evans

Hyer and Shaw and Evans headshots [View Image] 

(COHD) What are your lab responsibilities?

(D) This past summer I did a lot of work to improve my animal handling skills and learned how to run the predator stress protocol with Gladys. This semester I’m working on projects that involve tissue staining and microscopy. Specifically, I’m looking at spine densities of hippocampal neurons and examining both abnormalities and physiological changes. I’ve gained  much more experience in microscopy and histology this semester.

(G) As a PhD student you develop your own projects that will be used to form your dissertation. My projects are all based on using  a predator stress model beginning in adolescence in mice, which Devin has been helping with. The overarching goal is to assess the adult implications of this stressor and reveal potential sex-specific differences. Earlier this year, we wrapped up a project using this predator stress model to assess stress-induced changes in alcohol consumption between male and female mice. We’re currently doing a project looking at the combination of predator stress and chronic inflammation and examining its impact on adult cognition and synaptic metabolism. I am also finishing up my coursework and assisting with small tasks other lab members may need to complete their projects.

(M) My responsibilities in the lab are to progress the research including projects that promote the Neigh lab as a whole as well as projects to build my own research career. My current projects focus on how developmental stress confers vulnerability to cognitive decline. This includes all the aspects of experimental design and execution while also mentoring and teaching the trainees on each project. This includes teaching hands-on skills as well as presentation and communication skills, and writing skills.

 

(COHD)  What have been some of the benefits in working with Dr. Neigh?

(M) The benefit of working with Dr. Neigh first and foremost for me, is that she is a question driven person. This is reflected in how we design experiments in the lab. The questions that we ask are answered with the technique best available to answer that question. That’s a slightly different way of thinking about research. Often, people get restrained by the techniques that they know or that they have available. Dr. Neigh is interested in using the best technique to answer the question at hand so that you can best address the scientific question. This is a great benefit for trainees in general because it teaches you how to think about scientific questions in a new way and exposes you to new techniques to answer those questions all the time.

(G) Dr. Neigh is an expert in balancing her trainee’s individual needs - pushing you to do your best while supporting a healthy work-life balance for her students. When we first met Fall 2017 I told her that I wanted a mentor who was hands off but wasn’t absent. I feel like that’s a very difficult balance for a lot of mentors because it’s a thin and dynamic line to walk on. I think Dr. Neigh does a really good job, such that I am able to independently progress my projects without fearing that a failed assay would leave me flailing into the wind.

(D) First and foremost, Dr. Neigh helps with the development of transferrable skills, like how to be goal oriented, different strategies of learning and information processing, presentation skills, and identification of additional steps necessary to reach my own goals. She also teaches us how to get from point A to point B and how to recover from failures.  Dr. Neigh is also great with personal communication especially with her undergraduate students. She treats us like colleagues and values our input; I can actually talk to Dr. Neigh.

 

(COHD) Tell me how you’ve grown as a researcher?

(G) I think being able to plan and execute a project is something I’ve had to learn how to do here. Obviously in undergrad you are given a pre-planned experiment or you are helping a graduate student progress their ideas. My master’s degree gave me a taste of independence, but within the bounds of an ongoing experiment in the lab. In our first meeting, Dr. Neigh asked me, “what do you want to do?”.  We were able to combine my interests, my career goals, and skills into developing a project I was passionate about and could lead independently. I’ve also learned that the preliminary planning required to make an experiment run smoothly is a task in and of itself. It is a lot harder than what it seems like it should be and definitely a skill that’s useful in and out of the lab.

(D) In the classroom, I would say I’ve learned how to study material more efficiently and improved my critical thinking skills. Particularly in a lab setting, I’ve learned how to execute a task and know how to pay attention to detail.

(M) Well I’m always trying to grow as a researcher but the biggest change for me has been the shift from the PhD to the postdoc level. When you are in school you’re always thinking about that acute end point. Be it a year from now, two years, four years but there’s an end point and now for me there’s not really an end point. This is the beginning of the rest of my career. What Dr. Neigh is helping me be able to do is strategize more long-term research and career goals. Thinking about how you strategize those long-term goals of my research ideas and plans to eventually be independent is what I’m growing towards.

 

(COHD) What do you like about studying here at VCU and what do you like about being in Richmond?

(Dr. Neigh) I’ve only been in Richmond about four years. Before that I lived in Atlanta for twelve years. I find Richmond to be a very livable city. It has a lot to offer and it’s easy to access things. VCU is bigger than my previous university and has such a range of offerings from the arts programs all the way to the medical side of things. I like the diversity in that respect. It’s also much more diverse in terms of the backgrounds of people. My previous university had a very specific type of student. Most of whom came from very professional families. I see more of myself in the students in VCU. I came from a very small, very rural community. I’ve always felt like I was different from the people I interacted with in academia because it can be a very homogenous group. Here, there are so many different backgrounds, I feel like I belong and can contribute because there’s openness to everybody has a different story and different path. Just because you started in a different place doesn’t mean you can’t get to your goal. It just means you have a different path along the way.

(M) I really like being at VCU. I’ve been in a lot of different types of institutions. Going from a very small liberal arts, medium liberal arts, large state school, and now medical school has shown me a lot of variability in institutions. The things that I really like about VCU are similar to what Dr. Neigh said, mainly the variability and the strengths of VCU. The medical school is very strong and very driven. The MCV campus as a collective is extremely driven. Then having the Monroe Park campus to be so rich in creativity and diversity which feeds into the students that are going back and forth between both campuses. The contrast is really unique. I like being a part of the Center on Health Disparities, and the programs within the Center, because I’ve gotten to see the unique path of all the students. Everyone in those programs are there for a reason and why they’re there and how they’re trying to move forward has been encouraging to see.

(D) I’m a first generation college student so it was an eye opener for me being in a class with 300+ students. I really enjoy going to the library and mingling with friends, meeting different people, seeing new faces and just seeing the diversity on campus. VCU’s diverse student body allows you to met people of all backgrounds and ethnicities  which is pretty cool. You never know who you may meet.

(G) I like VCU because it is the best of both my undergrad and masters universities. I went to a small, high stress undergrad institution and my masters’ university was so large that it was difficult get to know your professors on a personal level. VCU is the perfect medium. There is a high level of research diversity with a lot of unique and impactful research happening on both campuses. The students are working towards the same goal of being successful without trying to undermine the successes of others.

I’m from Richmond and it is amazing to see how much the city has progressed within the past decade. I was a little hesitant coming back here because I was used to 2011 Richmond, before the Pulse, restaurants, and extensive social establishments came to the city. Seeing how much the city has grown was a welcome surprise and makes Richmond an amazing place to be a graduate student.



(COHD)  What do you do away from the lab?

(G) I play violin at weddings and different events and like to run and lift at the gym. I also run a pretty active cooking/food Instagram that showcases homemade meals and local restaurants in the area.

(D) I’m very comedic and like making people laugh. Also, I like to paint. I’m taking a painting class right now and using acrylic as my medium.

(M) I like to cook a lot and I like to be creative with that cooking. My husband is an avid gardener so he makes me help with the gardening portion but then I get to be creative with cooking all the fun stuff that he likes to grow.

Gretchen Neigh, Ph.D.

This month’s Mentor of the Month conversation highlights the mentor-mentee relationships of Dr. Gretchen Neigh and her mentees Molly Hyer, Ph.D., Gladys Shaw, and Devin Evans.

GretchenNeigh headshot [View Image]

 

(COHD)  How did you begin your biomedical research career?

(N) It wasn’t my planned path. I had planned to be a veterinarian. I vividly remember focusing my 3rd grade “what I want to be when I grow up” project on veterinary medicine, and I did not deviate from that plan until most of the way through college. I worked at a veterinary practice for four years by that point, and I very much enjoyed the work and interacting with the animals. However, I struggled with the bad decisions I would see people making for their pets, and I knew long term that the career would burn me out. Growing up in a rural part of Pennsylvania, I didn’t really know about a wide range of careers in the biological sciences, so I wasn’t sure what to do when I decided veterinary medicine wasn’t for me. One of my professors at Washington and Jefferson College suggested that I might be interested in research. I didn’t really know what it meant to be a scientist – in a practical day-to-day sense, so I did a research internship part way through my senior year of college. I really enjoyed research and decided at the very last minute to apply to grad school. I had one shot at the GRE because it was a paper test and there was one time it was going to be offered before applications were due. Luckily, I scored well enough that I was able to apply. I decided to attend The Ohio State University. That was ’98 so it has been more than twenty years.

 

(COHDWhat is the ultimate goal of your research? 

(N)  We study the molecular mechanisms that mediate risk and resilience. Essentially our work is aimed at trying to determine why/how two people can go through the same traumatic experience and one is fine and one develops PTSD and metabolic disorders and other ailments. What is that deciding point in one’s biology that decides who gets sick after stress? Genetics are a part of it, but there’s more to it than just genetics. We try to take questions all the way from the functional, behavioral, level down to the molecular level. The goal is to understand these mechanisms so that ultimately we will be able to provide information about how to control the switch point between risk and resilience.

(COHD)  In looking at your mentees, what do you wish you knew at their stage of their careers?

(N) I have three stages of mentees and the advice is different at each stage. As an undergrad, I wish I had a better understanding of the breadth of careers that would allow me to contribute in the realm of biology and medicine. I did eventually stumble my way along to what was the appropriate path for me, but had I been a little more strategic and aware in the beginning, I could have gotten there a little more efficiently. As a graduate student, I wish I had a better appreciation for what I didn’t know. I had a little bit too much arrogance for my own good when I started graduate school because I had always been good at everything and never really failed. So there were times when I was dismissive of other peoples’ ideas or thoughts, potentials, paths, options, or just ways of doing things, because of this arrogance, that ended up costing me time in the long run. As a postdoc, I wish I had a better appreciation at the outset about how as a postdoc you’re growing your long term network. As a graduate student you’re very dependent on your advisor and certainly you have other people in your committee. As a postdoc, you don’t have a committee anymore. In some ways you become even more dependent on your advisor, but you actually need to be less dependent in the end, and that’s not a very clear path.  I wish I had a better understanding in the beginning, that you really need to be building your network and not just working in your lab – that you need to be looking for ways to grow and differentiate. I knew in theory I needed to do that, but I wish I had a better appreciation of how to do it and the importance of it.

 

(COHD) What do you hope to gain from the mentee/mentor experience?

(N) Working with other people, and working with mentees in particular, who have such very different experiences and backgrounds and grew up in an entirely different generation than I did, is very interesting and rewarding. They look at everything differently from me, and I just find it really fascinating. I think it makes science better when you’re interacting with people who have all these different viewpoints. They also keep me challenged and honest. Not in the sense that I would be fabricating data, but honest in the sense that I can’t be like ‘Oh, well this is the way that it is’ because at least one of them is going to push back and say ‘Wait a minute. What about this, this, and this?’ I enjoy that challenge. The reasons that I think are a little less selfish is that I really genuinely enjoy seeing people that I’ve worked with move along their career path. I would not have stumbled my way along to here if I hadn’t had really good mentors and generous mentors that helped me to find that path. They don’t have to choose the same path as me, but when I can see that I can help my mentees move along towards what they want to do, that’s success.

 

(COHD)  Describe the ideal mentor/mentee relationship.

(N)  A good mentor/mentee relationship has clear communication and an understanding of each persons’ goals. I think also being honest but in a constructive way is important. I’m not doing anyone in my group any favors if I see that there’s a problem and don’t correct it because I don’t want to hurt their feelings or don’t want to make them upset. That would be completely disserving. They’re here for me to coach them and guide them. So I think it’s important that I am honest and accurate and try to not just say you did this wrong, but here are the things you can do to try to get this back on track. And sometimes that means acknowledging that I don’t know how to fix it, but guiding the mentee towards someone who I think might be able to help. Realizing my own limitations and being able to sometimes mentor the person to find someone else is also very important. I think the mentee has to be forthcoming and willing to advocate for themselves. I might not know what they need. I try to ask and check in, in order to give opportunities for someone to tell me what they need, but ultimately, they have to tell me or I won’t know.

  

(COHD) What do you do when to relax away from the lab?

(N) I really enjoy time outdoors and being around the water. Hiking or kayaking with my family are always favorite activities for me.

 

(COHD) Do you still have animals in your life?

(N) I have two dogs and a cat. I’d have more if I could!

Molly Hyer, Ph.D., Gladys Shaw, Devin Evans

Hyer and Shaw and Evans headshots [View Image] 

(COHD) What are your lab responsibilities?

(D) This past summer I did a lot of work to improve my animal handling skills and learned how to run the predator stress protocol with Gladys. This semester I’m working on projects that involve tissue staining and microscopy. Specifically, I’m looking at spine densities of hippocampal neurons and examining both abnormalities and physiological changes. I’ve gained  much more experience in microscopy and histology this semester.

(G) As a PhD student you develop your own projects that will be used to form your dissertation. My projects are all based on using  a predator stress model beginning in adolescence in mice, which Devin has been helping with. The overarching goal is to assess the adult implications of this stressor and reveal potential sex-specific differences. Earlier this year, we wrapped up a project using this predator stress model to assess stress-induced changes in alcohol consumption between male and female mice. We’re currently doing a project looking at the combination of predator stress and chronic inflammation and examining its impact on adult cognition and synaptic metabolism. I am also finishing up my coursework and assisting with small tasks other lab members may need to complete their projects.

(M) My responsibilities in the lab are to progress the research including projects that promote the Neigh lab as a whole as well as projects to build my own research career. My current projects focus on how developmental stress confers vulnerability to cognitive decline. This includes all the aspects of experimental design and execution while also mentoring and teaching the trainees on each project. This includes teaching hands-on skills as well as presentation and communication skills, and writing skills.

 

(COHD)  What have been some of the benefits in working with Dr. Neigh?

(M) The benefit of working with Dr. Neigh first and foremost for me, is that she is a question driven person. This is reflected in how we design experiments in the lab. The questions that we ask are answered with the technique best available to answer that question. That’s a slightly different way of thinking about research. Often, people get restrained by the techniques that they know or that they have available. Dr. Neigh is interested in using the best technique to answer the question at hand so that you can best address the scientific question. This is a great benefit for trainees in general because it teaches you how to think about scientific questions in a new way and exposes you to new techniques to answer those questions all the time.

(G) Dr. Neigh is an expert in balancing her trainee’s individual needs - pushing you to do your best while supporting a healthy work-life balance for her students. When we first met Fall 2017 I told her that I wanted a mentor who was hands off but wasn’t absent. I feel like that’s a very difficult balance for a lot of mentors because it’s a thin and dynamic line to walk on. I think Dr. Neigh does a really good job, such that I am able to independently progress my projects without fearing that a failed assay would leave me flailing into the wind.

(D) First and foremost, Dr. Neigh helps with the development of transferrable skills, like how to be goal oriented, different strategies of learning and information processing, presentation skills, and identification of additional steps necessary to reach my own goals. She also teaches us how to get from point A to point B and how to recover from failures.  Dr. Neigh is also great with personal communication especially with her undergraduate students. She treats us like colleagues and values our input; I can actually talk to Dr. Neigh.

 

(COHD) Tell me how you’ve grown as a researcher?

(G) I think being able to plan and execute a project is something I’ve had to learn how to do here. Obviously in undergrad you are given a pre-planned experiment or you are helping a graduate student progress their ideas. My master’s degree gave me a taste of independence, but within the bounds of an ongoing experiment in the lab. In our first meeting, Dr. Neigh asked me, “what do you want to do?”.  We were able to combine my interests, my career goals, and skills into developing a project I was passionate about and could lead independently. I’ve also learned that the preliminary planning required to make an experiment run smoothly is a task in and of itself. It is a lot harder than what it seems like it should be and definitely a skill that’s useful in and out of the lab.

(D) In the classroom, I would say I’ve learned how to study material more efficiently and improved my critical thinking skills. Particularly in a lab setting, I’ve learned how to execute a task and know how to pay attention to detail.

(M) Well I’m always trying to grow as a researcher but the biggest change for me has been the shift from the PhD to the postdoc level. When you are in school you’re always thinking about that acute end point. Be it a year from now, two years, four years but there’s an end point and now for me there’s not really an end point. This is the beginning of the rest of my career. What Dr. Neigh is helping me be able to do is strategize more long-term research and career goals. Thinking about how you strategize those long-term goals of my research ideas and plans to eventually be independent is what I’m growing towards.

 

(COHD) What do you like about studying here at VCU and what do you like about being in Richmond?

(Dr. Neigh) I’ve only been in Richmond about four years. Before that I lived in Atlanta for twelve years. I find Richmond to be a very livable city. It has a lot to offer and it’s easy to access things. VCU is bigger than my previous university and has such a range of offerings from the arts programs all the way to the medical side of things. I like the diversity in that respect. It’s also much more diverse in terms of the backgrounds of people. My previous university had a very specific type of student. Most of whom came from very professional families. I see more of myself in the students in VCU. I came from a very small, very rural community. I’ve always felt like I was different from the people I interacted with in academia because it can be a very homogenous group. Here, there are so many different backgrounds, I feel like I belong and can contribute because there’s openness to everybody has a different story and different path. Just because you started in a different place doesn’t mean you can’t get to your goal. It just means you have a different path along the way.

(M) I really like being at VCU. I’ve been in a lot of different types of institutions. Going from a very small liberal arts, medium liberal arts, large state school, and now medical school has shown me a lot of variability in institutions. The things that I really like about VCU are similar to what Dr. Neigh said, mainly the variability and the strengths of VCU. The medical school is very strong and very driven. The MCV campus as a collective is extremely driven. Then having the Monroe Park campus to be so rich in creativity and diversity which feeds into the students that are going back and forth between both campuses. The contrast is really unique. I like being a part of the Center on Health Disparities, and the programs within the Center, because I’ve gotten to see the unique path of all the students. Everyone in those programs are there for a reason and why they’re there and how they’re trying to move forward has been encouraging to see.

(D) I’m a first generation college student so it was an eye opener for me being in a class with 300+ students. I really enjoy going to the library and mingling with friends, meeting different people, seeing new faces and just seeing the diversity on campus. VCU’s diverse student body allows you to met people of all backgrounds and ethnicities  which is pretty cool. You never know who you may meet.

(G) I like VCU because it is the best of both my undergrad and masters universities. I went to a small, high stress undergrad institution and my masters’ university was so large that it was difficult get to know your professors on a personal level. VCU is the perfect medium. There is a high level of research diversity with a lot of unique and impactful research happening on both campuses. The students are working towards the same goal of being successful without trying to undermine the successes of others.

I’m from Richmond and it is amazing to see how much the city has progressed within the past decade. I was a little hesitant coming back here because I was used to 2011 Richmond, before the Pulse, restaurants, and extensive social establishments came to the city. Seeing how much the city has grown was a welcome surprise and makes Richmond an amazing place to be a graduate student.



(COHD)  What do you do away from the lab?

(G) I play violin at weddings and different events and like to run and lift at the gym. I also run a pretty active cooking/food Instagram that showcases homemade meals and local restaurants in the area.

(D) I’m very comedic and like making people laugh. Also, I like to paint. I’m taking a painting class right now and using acrylic as my medium.

(M) I like to cook a lot and I like to be creative with that cooking. My husband is an avid gardener so he makes me help with the gardening portion but then I get to be creative with cooking all the fun stuff that he likes to grow.

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