Graduate student Jenelle Wallace (G7) of the Murthy Lab has been named as one of four recipients of the 2019-2020 Bowdoin Prize for Graduate Students, which honors original essays written by Harvard graduate students about their research. She is the only 2019-2020 recipient to be recognized for an essay in the Natural Sciences
Her 7,138 word essay called “To Change the Brain” explores research on brain plasticity.
“I think the idea of how much the brain can change in response to experience is fascinating from both basic science and translational perspectives,” Wallace says. “Many animals have much higher capabilities for regeneration and the formation of new brain cells than humans, and the question of why is fundamentally interesting in terms of understanding our place in the animal kingdom and the possible constraints on intelligence, memory, and adaptability.” She adds that understanding plasticity is fostering treatments for neurodegenerative diseases.
In the essay, Wallace uses her personal experience as a researcher to introduce neuroscience techniques in an accessible way. She weaves anecdotes about her excitement when she first found out about optogenetics in high school and her frustration with assays that turned up null results in with detailed explanations of channel rhodopsins, two-photon microscopy, and calcium imaging, among other key techniques.
“I wanted to give a sense of my day-to-day work, so I tried to include some interesting details about the experiments themselves (how neuronal dendrites look like spiderwebs under the microscope or what type of suction is necessary to break a cell’s membrane) and also give a realistic idea of the hard work and [the] amount of repetition required to make progress in science,” Wallace says.
She adds, “Thanks to my friends and family for always being curious about my work even if it takes me 7,138 words to explain it! Thanks to my adviser Venkatesh Murthy for encouraging me to write the essay and supporting my endeavors inside and outside the lab.”
More of Wallace’s outreach efforts can be found through her Twitter handle @JenelleWallace5.