University of Vermont

Student Profile: Estelle Spear

Doctoral Candidate, Neuroscience Graduate Program

Estelle Spear in her lab

Our featured student in this issue of IMPACT is Estelle Spear, a doctoral candidate in the Neuroscience Graduate Program.

IMPACT: To start with, Estelle, tell our readers where you are from and what you did as an undergraduate.

Estelle Spear: I spent the first eighteen years of my life in Chardon, a rural city in northeast Ohio. For seven years — all of middle and high school — I competed statewide and nationally in Science Olympiad.

Science Olympiad is a team-based competition where students compete in twenty-three different STEM-related events in groups of two to three students. Events range from completing written exams to building complex electrical machines. My favorite events included Experimental Design, Science of Fitness and — you guessed it — Neuroscience.

My involvement in this group allowed me to love science. It was cool to see so many students in one place passionate about the same thing, not to mention the volunteer coaches (most of whom were parents), who dedicated a lot of time to the organization. This attitude and enthusiasm towards science is something that I’ve always hoped to maintain throughout my career.

When I matriculated at Allegheny College in 2008, I was excited to see that Allegheny not only listed Neuroscience as a major, but also offered a behavioral tract and a cellular tract — I completed my B.S. in the latter.

IMPACT: So it was Neuroscience from the beginning. What inspired you to go to graduate school at UVM?

Spear hikingES: My research experience as an undergraduate influenced my decision to pursue a Ph.D. in Neuroscience. Allegheny College did a great job of introducing students to scientific research and I was fortunate to receive a funded internship at the Cleveland Clinic during one summer as an undergraduate. I chose to pursue my Ph.D. at University of Vermont in particular because UVM has great research facilities and faculty that offer a very supportive environment for learning. I also love the atmosphere of Burlington and enjoy being surrounded by beautiful Vermont nature!

IMPACT: The "atmosphere of Burlington" comes up in just about every student interview! Tell us about your experiences in grad school at UVM. What is it like to work with faculty members and to do your own scholarship or research?

ES: Graduate school so far has been a roller coaster of an experience, but the atmosphere at UVM, including my program administrators, faculty, and peers, is very supportive. Working with faculty members at UVM is really exciting for me because the environment here is so conducive to learning. Faculty members are very open to collaboration and are excited to train new researchers.

Regarding the dissertation research, I love having the independence to design my own experiments. I am particularly fortunate because my research interest was outside of the expertise of my Principal Investigator, Dr. Gary Mawe, but he was willing and open to pursue that topic in his lab. I have always been interested in Multiple Sclerosis (MS), and many patients with MS have gastrointestinal dysfunction. Dr. Mawe studies the nervous system of the gut, so we expanded our resources by collaborating with Dr. Cory Teuscher, an immunologist who studies animal models of MS, and Dr. Angela Applebee, an MS neurologist.

It is exciting to me that this collaboration materialized because I expressed interest in a given field, and it gives me confidence in my ability to design and pursue successful and relevant experiments.

IMPACT: Tell us where you are in your graduate education and what you plan to do after graduating.

ES: I am halfway through my fourth year in the Neuroscience Ph.D. program, and I plan to finish by the end of 2017. I proposed my dissertation research to my dissertation committee in September and am well on my way to collecting the data I need!

I don’t know exactly what I want to do after graduation, but I may pursue an academic post-doc that involves a balance of research and teaching opportunities. I've had the opportunity to teach as a graduate teaching assistant (TA) quite a few times now, and I really love the experience. I was also accepted into the Graduate Teaching Program, so I am using that to help build up my teaching portfolio.

IMPACT:  We've learned recently that you scored very well on your NIH pre-doctoral fellow application — congratulations!  Thank you for your time, Estelle, and best wishes as you work toward your dissertation and graduation.