Faculty provides opportunity that led to student internship

There is no way that I will ever get to work with a world class researcher at SIUE. This is one thought that SIUE students may have on a regular basis.

Faith Liebl, assistant professor of biological sciences, and Christina Palka, junior biological sciences major, have proved this thought to be false. Liebl, a fairly fresh face at SIUE, invited Michele Jacob, a professor and lead researcher at Tufts University, to speak at SIUE.

Palka holds a mouse from her summer experience. Photo courtesy of Christina Palka.

The invitation for Jacob to speak was extended as a result of grant money from the SIUE Provost’s office. Chris Theodorakis, associate professor of biological sciences, applied for and received money from SIUE’s  Excellence in Undergraduate Education program. The purpose of these grants is to fund projects that contribute to excellence and innovation for undergraduate student education.

The Department of Biological Sciences grant funding has been used to increase exposure to the broader world of biology. Senior assignment programs are constructed to allow scientists from across the field to speak on campus. “This is kind of a unique opportunity … to bring in people who are well known in their fields, who have been highly productive as scholars and even as teachers,” Liebl stated.

“Most of the teachers at SIUE really want to help their students and if you just approach them, you get opportunities that you wouldn’t even dream of,” said Palka. This was the path that Palka travelled. As a result, she was able to work in Jacob’s lab.

Jacob, who did her post-doctoral studies in the lab of Nobel Laureate Eric Kandel, is becoming a prominent name in neuroscience. She has presented her research topic of “identifying molecular mechanisms, in vivo, that direct proper assembly and function of neuronal excitatory synapses.” (see link).

Palka took the initiative to speak with Jacob at a pizza luncheon held for the students. She found out that Jacob had an internship available for the summer. Palka, before arriving at SIUE, contacted Liebl stating her desire to study and do research in neuroscience. Liebl, who had similar funding available, wrote Palka a glowing letter of recommendation. “I couldn’t say you have to stay here!” said Liebl.

“For Christina, this was too good of an opportunity for her. Christina’s big interest is neuroscience,” she said. “Tuft’s actually has an entire department—an entire body of graduate students—that she could then interact with.”

Palka got the internship over four or five other students that were under serious consideration for the position. “I chose Christina because she impressed me with her drive and enthusiasm for neuroscience research,” Jacob said. “In addition, Faith spoke highly of Christina’s skills at the research bench and I have confidence in Faith’s evaluation of her students’ abilities.”

Christina Palka in Michele Jacob's lab, gently handles her lab mouse. Photo courtesy of Christina Palka.

One experiment that Palka ran involved testing mice for decreased social interaction. “The test involved a three chambered cage one with a “mouse” in one and one that was empty.” Palka explained. “We tested and recorded the amount of time the mice spent in each section of the cage.”

It was “probably the best summer that I have ever had as a conscious human being,” Palka said.

“Christina did outstanding work this summer. She learned a lot of neuroscience and helped to design behavioral diagnostic experiments,” Jacob related. “She was extremely productive and generated exciting new data. Her contribution to our research efforts have led to her being a co-author on an abstract being presented at the upcoming Society for Neuroscience meeting.”

“The work that [Christina] did there is going to be presented at the Society for Neuroscience meeting in November in San Diego, Nov. 13-17,” said Liebl. “She will be an author on their poster.”

“Christina will be a co-author on a manuscript to be submitted soon,” Jacob relayed. “This is an outstanding achievement for an undergraduate student.”

Palka said she is glad she chose SIUE over larger universities. “You get to know, personally, all of your teachers … I never would have had met Michele if Faith had not had her interaction with Michele and, at a larger university, you just don’t get these opportunities.”

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  1. dr16gauge says:

    Congratulations Christina! Thanks Dr. Liebl and Dr. Jacob for providing the invitation, the great talk, and for mentoring this student!

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