University of Vermont

Student Profile: Allison Neal

Ph.D. candidate, Biology

Allison "Alli" Neal grew up in Northfield, Vermont, and as the top student at Northfield High School in 2005, was awarded the prestigious University of Vermont Green and Gold Scholarship. (This scholarship pays for room, board, and tuition for four years and is an excellent way to keep Vermont's best and brightest here in Vermont.)

Because Alli's interests ranged broadly from music, theater and literature to math and science, she came to UVM in 2006 as an undergraduate student with an undeclared major. She was accepted into the Honors College, and at the end of her first year decided to major in Biology.

"I found living things more interesting than man-made ones," Alli explains. "My hope was to someday teach, and my high school biology teacher encouraged me to study in college what I wanted to teach rather than getting an education degree."

In the spring semester of her junior year, Alli took a course called Ecological Parasitology with Dr. Joseph Schall, and knew she had found her niche. "I was fascinated by the parasite life-cycles," she says, "and for the first time I was able to see scientific research as a process rather than a bunch of facts in a textbook." Alli approached Dr. Schall about volunteering in his lab over the summer and she was accepted. Professor Schall proposed a research project for her, and Alli subsequently spent three weeks that summer doing field research in northern California. The rest of the summer was spent in the lab learning how to extract, amplify, and analyze DNA and count malaria parasites. This research led to her senior Honors thesis in the spring of 2009, followed by the awarding of her Bachelor of Science degree in Biology that May.

During her senior year, Professor Schall had encouraged Alli to apply for a Master's degree in Biology. Teaching was still part of her planning, so she was considering a Master's degree in Education, but she decided that she'd prefer to stick with the sciences. She was accepted into the Master of Science in Biology program and started graduate school at UVM in the fall of 2009.

Now truly committed to pursuing research, Alli started applying for grants in the fall of 2010, her second year of grad school. She hoped to both expand her research experience and receive a stipend to free up more of her time for research. She also had, by this time, decided to pursue her Ph.D. "I was fortunate to have been funded initially by Professor Schall's National Science Foundation (NSF) grant, but I decided to apply for the NSF East Asia and the Pacific Summer Institute (EAPSI) grant and the Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP)."

Alli and her faculty mentor were thrilled to learn that she had received both grants, a truly exceptional achievement. "EAPSI allowed me to travel to New Zealand and spend the summer of 2011 working with Robert Poulin, one of the leading ecological parasitologists in the world, on an independent project. For that project, I studied the behavior of a larval trematode (flatworm), which exposed me to new research techniques, a new study system, and a number of great researchers that I might have otherwise missed the opportunity to interact with. When I returned, I started receiving my GRFP stipend, which granted me extra time to pursue research since I was no longer teaching."

Alli has continued her graduate studies and research, and is now in her 5th year as a UVM graduate student, well on her way to earning her Ph.D. She recently applied for, and received, a prestigious Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grant from the NSF. "I was so happy and excited to receive this award," Alli said. "The funds will allow me to test the predictions of the models in my Ph.D. dissertation, and I can't wait to get started."

She already has three publications based on her research, and has received numerous awards such as inclusion into the Golden Key Society and Phi Beta Kappa, and she received the Lyman S. Rowell Award in Biology. She has participated in numerous research conferences and made over a dozen presentations of her work.

Alli hopes to graduate sometime in 2014. When asked about her plans for the future, she expressed her desire to eventually land a faculty position at a small to medium university. "I am very interested in integrating research and education. I also want to get undergraduates involved in research so that they can start to see -- as I did -- science as a process rather than memorizing facts. Immediately after graduating, I may apply for both post-doctoral positions and faculty positions and will just see how things go!"