Gaining the confidence to believe I deserve to be in a lab studying science

“I feel like my time at Mount Holyoke gave me the ability to gain the confidence that I feel was deep within me.”

Sommer Huntress grew up observing the everyday realities of family members who have neurodegenerative diseases. Those experiences informed her path in life, guiding her toward studying groundbreaking neuroscience at Mount Holyoke College. 

“My father has a traumatic brain injury, and my grandmother has Alzheimer’s disease, so I’ve been able to grow up observing both development and decay of brains,” she said. “I always found that really interesting. I lucked out going into college knowing that’s what I want to do and was able to start that track earlier than others.” 

In high school, Huntress said it was challenging for her voice to be heard because “men are often a louder voice in STEM classes.” 

She said that being a woman in STEM at Mount Holyoke has given her the confidence to believe that she deserves to be in a lab studying science. 

“My time at Mount Holyoke allowed me to gain the confidence that I feel has always been deep within me but not actively present,” she said. 

For Huntress, one of the greatest achievements of her undergraduate career at Mount Holyoke came out of joining a laboratory led by Kenneth Colodner, assistant professor of neuroscience and behavior. One groundbreaking research project at the lab focused on mapping the tracheal system (a pathway of tubes that transports oxygen and carbon dioxide) in the brains of fruit flies using different microscopy techniques.

During the Spring 2021 semester, Huntress worked as a research assistant on the project, learning to utilize software that can construct a 3D image from  photographs of 7,000 individual slices of a fruit fly’s brain.

As summer approached, she was able to line up a Lynk-funded summer internship at the lab to continue her work. 

Following that summer, Huntress presented her research at the 2021 UMass Interdisciplinary Neuroscience, Computer Science & Engineering Poster Conference, where she ranked first place alongside fellow labmate, Lizzy Agbedun.

“We were able to introduce people to the concept of this tracheal system, which nobody knows about because the map had never been created before,” she said. “It was really rewarding. People assumed we were graduate students.” 

In her senior year, Huntress has been working as a lab assistant for the College’s chemistry department and serving as an organic chemistry tutor, supporting students one-on-one to help them gain a better understanding of the subject and succeed in their courses. 

“That was my own little personal goal in my college career because I felt like if you were able to tutor a lab, then you were confident and knowledgeable in a subject,” she said. 

Huntress’ academic pursuits have given her new insights into her family’s experiences with neurodegenerative diseases. 

“That just continues to reinforce the fact that this research is valuable as an academic and personal pursuit,” she said. “I am looking forward to continuing it into the future.” 

After graduation, Huntress plans to move to Boston to pursue a career in neuroscience.

“I want to do neuroscience research and work in labs that are making active efforts to help people with neurodegenerative diseases, whether that be working under a primary investigator or going back to school to become a primary investigator to do that work,” she said.