Discovering stellar academics in an environment where everyone can feel comfortable speaking up

“Immediately, I realized [Kenneth Colodner’s] lab researched exactly what I was interested in, and it was one of these weird meant-to-be moments.”

After attending an all-girls high school, Carrie Lewis was explicitly uninterested in attending a women’s college. “The thing about it being a sisterhood didn’t feel inclusive to me,” they said.

But at their mother’s urging, Lewis attended a presentation by the Seven Sisters colleges. “I hated to admit it, but my mother was right. I realized I had to go to one of the schools,” Lewis said. It was the combination of stellar academics and an environment where Lewis knew they would always feel comfortable speaking up that convinced them a women’s college that was gender diverse could feel like home. “At these schools there is celebration for every aspiration you can have, and it feels like anyone coming to these schools comes wanting to do amazing things and leaves to go do amazing things,” they said.

Mount Holyoke, with its interdisciplinary neuroscience program, topped Lewis’ list out of the seven colleges presenting that night. Lewis has long dreamed of doing research related to dementia. “I studied AP psych in high school and became really interested in memory. There is a lot we don’t know about the science behind it.” Yet dying from Alzheimer’s or another memory-related ailment is surprisingly common and is such a particularly sad way to die. “I’ve just always had this sympathy for people dying from dementia,” they added. When it came to picking a program, Lewis thought Mount Holyoke’s behavioral and biological approach to neuroscience would afford them a comprehensive foundation upon which they could move toward a Ph.D. and career in research.

“Every day it’s like, ‘I learned this crazy thing in class today.’”

Lewis arrived knowing exactly what they wanted to study and never wavered from that path. Their first neuroscience class was with Kenneth Colodner, an associate professor of neuroscience and behavior. “Immediately, I realized his lab researched exactly what I was interested in, and it was one of these weird meant-to-be moments,” Lewis said. They have worked in Colodner’s lab ever since.

Lewis’ thesis focuses on a specific protein called tau. Tau is a protein involved in Alzheimer’s disease. Their project looks at how the protein can incite neurodegeneration from its expression in astrocytes, a type of glial cell in the brain. Working with fruit flies, Lewis is testing how different types of traumatic brain injuries — like those early in life or multiple injuries over time — can change the associated pathologies of tau. The next step for Lewis is notating whether flies with tau die before the control group.

While Lewis loves hard science, they also love the not-so-scientific art of writing horoscopes for The Mount Holyoke News. “There is a big culture on campus of ‘what’s your sign,’” they said, adding that it has been a fun and creative outlet. Each week Lewis and their best friend — a math major — break out of their super objective fields to write something a little less grounded in fact. “I feel like I have this control over what’s happening on campus,” they joked. It’s fun, they said, to see students reading their work and to hear them chatting about their horoscopes.

When Lewis first arrived on campus, they worried that, although they wanted to study neuroscience, they might not thrive in some of the courses. They didn’t particularly love high school biology. But when Lewis took Biology 200 and then organic chemistry, they loved both. “Our professors are complete experts in their fields, and they’re trained in their disciplines, but they’re also really good at delivering that information to students,” they said. Seeing a professor’s passions play out in classroom lectures made the material that much more fascinating. “Every day it’s like, ‘I learned this crazy thing in class today,’” they said.

It’s a feeling they hope to carry into a life full of learning and discoveries. “The way science works is that, through your research, you find a really specific thing out. Sometimes that really specific thing moves the needle. Sometimes it is something that someone else can build on,” they said. With their experience in Colodner’s lab to build on, Lewis “feels really optimistic that I will find something really cool out” and hopefully help a lot of people along the way.

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Christian Feuerstein
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