From nerves to neurons: growing as a scientist at Mount Holyoke

Felicity Emerson ’17

Felicity Emerson ’17

Graduate student, Cornell University Biomedical and Biological Sciences Ph.D. Program

Academic focus: neuroscience and behavior major, biology minor

Internships: Summer researcher in the Pinto Lab at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai through the Summer Undergraduate Research Program; Summer researcher in the Kernie Lab at Columbia University Medical Center through the Amgen Scholars Program 

When I first came to Mount Holyoke, I was not at all confident in my scientific abilities. I had always been interested in biology and did fairly well in class, but I was racked with anxiety when I considered registering for Introduction to Neuroscience my first semester. I almost switched my course selection a dozen times because I was afraid it would be too hard for me. Luckily, I did click that button to register, and practically after the first day of class I was hooked.

After learning the basics of biology and neuroscience in introductory courses, I gained confidence in my abilities to learn and understand biology. However, it wasn’t really until my upper-level discussion-based classes that I felt my confidence grow as a scientist. In these courses, I was not only asked to read and interpret primary literature but to critique it as well — to think about what I would have done differently had I been holding the pipette. It was around this time that I started strongly considering the possibility of graduate school — where I could take my shot at performing my own experiments for others to critique.

Simultaneously, I was asked to write about my own experiments in lab and my ideas for potential experiments. I took a chance, and with a lot of support from my mentor, Jared Schwartzer, professor of psychology and education, I applied for a Goldwater Scholarship for aspiring scientists.

For the first time, I had to use the critical thinking and scientific creativity I had learned in my classes and craft a scientific idea into a grant application — and it was a lot harder than I thought it would be. After months of revisions, I submitted the application and felt a sense of pride at how far I had come from my first draft. When I received an honorable mention for my application, I was ecstatic and energized to keep improving my writing. Luckily, I had plenty of opportunities.

With numerous applications to summer research internship programs, class papers, my senior thesis and, finally, graduate school applications, I was eager to start writing when my graduate school professor announced we would each have an opportunity to write and critique grant applications for the National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship Program, a prestigious fellowship that funds Ph.D. students for three years of their studies. This would be my first time writing a major grant, and without my support system at Mount Holyoke, I was off to a rough start.

Luckily, my training in how to persevere through rounds after rounds of revisions kicked in, and after months of work I was again pleased by my progress and final product. A few months later, I received an email that my application had been accepted and I was being awarded a fellowship from the NSF. I was simultaneously thrilled and amazed, but I knew the reason I was able to receive this award was because of the strong training in scientific reasoning and writing that I received from my professors, mentors and classmates at Mount Holyoke.

I honestly think that for me, a Mount Holyoke education has made all the difference. After four years of living and learning at Mount Holyoke, I have grown into a strong, confident and competent individual and aspiring scientist. I can’t imagine having been able to grow so much anywhere except MoHome.