Grad stories: Heidi Connahs


Susan Caraher

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Grad stories: Heidi Connahs

UND graduate student Heidi Connahs shares her background and experience.

What is your hometown?

Originally, I'm from Chester, which is in northwest England near Liverpool. When I was about 19, I moved to the south coast to attend the University of Brighton where I did my undergraduate degree. It was a new degree in Forestry and Biological Sciences. It was a split degree meaning you could successfully graduate after 3 years with a Higher National Diploma, which gives students a vocational qualification, or stay on as I did with one other girl for another 18 months to complete a bachelors' degree.

Then you came to the United States for a Masters degree at Tulane University in New Orleans. How did that come about?

While I was doing my undergrad, I became extremely passionate about tropical forests, and I worked at a tree nursery during the summer, and saved enough to go on an Earthwatch project in Costa Rica working with caterpillars and their parasitoids. It was a dream come true for me because I'd been reading about explorers and the tropics, and then I had a chance to go there and experience it. It blew me away ? the diversity of the insects, the vegetation. While I was there I met a professor who was involved with the Earthwatch project and was also connected to a project I found myself working on the following year in Ecuador. He brought an Earthwatch group to that project and through talking with him, he invited me to get a graduate degree at Tulane University and in 2009 I obtained my Masters degree.

It's quite a journey to UND for your Ph.D. ? this is by no means the Tropics!

I'd spent a lot of time doing fieldwork in the tropics, and had taken time out to work there ? a year in Ecuador and a year in Panama and traveling back and forth to the UK. I'd spent quite a lot of time doing this type of work ? studying insects and their natural enemies and I really wanted to delve in and get to the root of these interactions by looking at what was going on at the level of the DNA. I also recognized that, increasingly, Biology jobs were moving very much towards these specializations like molecular biology or chemical ecology. UND had both funding and training in molecular biology. Our department has three main groups ? wildlife biology, ecology and molecular biology ? so it makes for interesting research across the department.

Congratulations to you for successfully earned an Adele Lewis Grant Fellowship for Graduate Women in Science earlier this year.

I put the application together over the Christmas break last year and thought, "We'll just see what happens...maybe I'll get a little something..." I knew that the decisions were to be announced in July, and in late June I was working on dissecting some butterfly wings and got a call from a representative of the Graduate Women in Science and she congratulated me and told me I was the highest scoring applicant! I couldn't believe it! I later learned the award is open to all female scientists ? graduate, postdocs, faculty etc. There were over 200 applications, so I just couldn't believe it! And they funded me 100 percent of my application. It opened so many doors to me in terms of my research, and also participating in committee meetings for the Graduate Women in Science ? I was really honored and extremely grateful.

I've been lucky this year with funding, getting this award, an APSAC and Wheeler award from the Biology Department, an EPSCoR Doctoral Dissertation Award and I'm preparing another for the Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grant for NSF (National Science Foundation). I'm always thinking ahead ? the thing about molecular biology is that it's expensive. You need equipment, reagents... so I'm constantly thinking about how to fund my research. I've written lots of grants ? it takes a long time to learn how to write a good grant.

I imagine that the further you get into your research project, the clearer you are able to determine and articulate your funding needs?

Yes, and when I'm writing a grant I always try to imagine the reviewer and ask myself whether, "Is it clear? Is the story logical? "And hopefully make their decision to fund an easy one!

So you have a couple of pools of funding for your dissertation research?

Yes, and this has allowed me to present my research at the Entomological Society of America conference in Austin, Texas and the EPSCoR funding really helped along with travel funding from the Graduate School and an intercollegiate academic award.

Tell me about your dissertation research.

Broadly speaking, my research seeks to understand how animals develop ? what are the genes involved, and how do the genes function to produce all of the diversity of animals that we see in nature. My study organisms are butterflies as they exhibit a lot of morphological variation in their wing color patterns, and plus they are stunningly beautiful animals to work with. So my goal is to identify some of the genes that are involved in wing color pattern development but also to examine how the environment can alter gene expression leading to differences in wing color patterns.

Specifically what I am interested in is the question whether epigenetic mechanisms are involved in regulating wing color patterns. Epigenetics literally means "above the genes" and it refers to the molecular mechanisms that alter gene expression without actually changing the underlying DNA sequence. During development there are molecular tags that get added on either to the DNA or the proteins that DNA wraps around. And when these tags get added on, they can result in genes being switched on or switched off. It's a dynamic process, and these tags can be influenced by development cues ? what we're learning more about now is that they can also be influenced by environmental cues. These tags are heritable, and can be transmitted from parent to offspring.

Even though epigenetics has been around for a while, recently there's been a surge of interest in this area. For a long time, biologists thought that an organism's genotype was determined strictly by the genes it inherits. But we now know it is a lot more complicated than that ? for example twins can have different susceptibilities to disease even though they inherited an identical genome due to environmental influences on epigenetic mechanisms. So epigenetics has profound implications for our health and determining an organisms' phenotype. We're really only just scratching the surface in understanding how these interactions work.

You mentioned earlier that you're always thinking ahead. What is down the road for you in 5–10 years?

My passion is in research ? I live and breathe my work. Ideally, I'd like to do some postdoc work, which could be 2-5 years. I'd really like to use my research in molecular and developmental biology to understand why there is so much diversity in the tropics. Although my research is with butterflies, the great thing about molecular biology is that once you learn how to study what's happening at the level of the DNA, you can study any organism.

Ideally I'd be based in the UK so I could be closer to my family, but have a fieldwork project somewhere in the tropics. My dream job would be as a staff scientist at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama where I worked previously. It is an amazing facility, and you're surrounded by tropical biologists who are all equally passionate about their work. You never take it for granted because you are always learning and discovering something new ? a new insect or new bird. I love being around that intellectual excitement. There are always seminars going on, and mentorship opportunities.

We highlight the role that mentorship plays in graduate education, but you play a part in both mentoring undergraduate students and being mentored by your own faculty.

Yes, it is critical. In our department there is a lot of opportunity to work with undergraduates and they have all been fantastic. I couldn't get through my current research without help from my undergraduate student. It is important to me that they feel like they are collaborators and are not just there to do grunt work. I love taking on a new student who knows nothing about my project and watching them grow and develop to the point where they can work independently. It's so rewarding to see.

But I also learn so much from the faculty whom I assist. I'm working with Dr. Carmichael as a teaching assistant in the new SCALE-up room. I love working with him, he's really organized and has been doing it a long time. I've learned so much and will be able to adopt some of that style in my future teaching.

What advice do you have for a student who is considering a graduate degree in Biology?

Finding someone that you feel comfortable working with, because you need to work closely with that person for 5 years. My advisor, Dr. Rebecca Simmons, is so wonderful, and fun and positive. She gives me freedom to do what I want with my research but is always right behind me encouraging me and many times has gone out of her way to help me.

I have a wonderful committee, actually. I have learned a tremendous amount from Dr. Turk Rhen. He has spent many hours teaching me how to do micro dissections and transcriptomics, and we've had many interesting conversations about epigenetics ? he's one of the most patient people I've ever met! Dr. Diane Darland is a fountain of wisdom. She's helped me prepare my cv as well as grant writing. Dr. Brian Darby paid for me to attend the Ecological Genomics conference last year and is very generous letting me borrow things from his lab! I'm lucky to have a really great committee. I get to work and learn from faculty with a variety of strengths and expertise.

Secondly, you have to be passionate. Doing a Ph.D., you need to be very self motivated, which is easy if you are passionate about what you do. It is very stressful and there are immensely long hours, so you have to be doing something you love. I feel like a Ph.D. is what you make it. I'm also very ambitious so I set the bar high for myself, which also puts me under a lot of stress! I know where I want my research to go and I recognize that there is a lot of work to do to get there. I think I'll always be very driven to do my work, but who knows? Maybe when I get to do post doctoral work, I can find more of that work-life balance. I might take up playing the violin again!

Susan Caraher School of Graduate Studies

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