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Q&A with PhD Student, Fulbright Scholar Rachel Van Drunen

June 13, 2023

Photo of Rachel Van Drunen

PhD student Rachel Van Drunen has always had a fascination with science, but when she was a novice summer intern working in a regenerative medicine lab at the Texas Heart Institute, she felt more like MacGyver than a full-fledge scientist. Trying to take a jumble of information; a mixture of new tools, methods, and resources; and use them together to develop a hypothesis was a challenge due to her lack of research acumen. But the freedom to experiment in the lab gave her the confidence and expertise that solidified her passion for science and her career path as a researcher. In March, Van Drunen, who is affiliated with the Neuroscience and Biochemistry and Cell Biology programs and works in the lab of Kristin Eckel-Mahan, PhD, was named a Fulbright Scholar. In this Q&A, she discusses her research project and why she selected MD Anderson UTHealth Houston Graduate School for her studies.

As a graduate student, what ignited your passion for science?

I’ve always held a fascination for science but it wasn’t until the summer after high school that I had my first foray into research. I worked for two summers as an intern in a regenerative medicine lab at the Texas Heart Institute. I really enjoyed my time there, I worked with others on a project to develop a biocompatible ventricle from decellularized porcine tissue. Despite being a summer intern, I was given a lot of freedom to “experiment,” which at my experience level, was more along the lines of hypothesis directed MacGyvering. These summers truly ignited my passion for science, as I delighted in being able to pose a hypothesis and then to test the hypothesis in a variety of ways.

How did you learn about the Fulbright opportunity? Did you get help from the Graduate School to apply?

I loosely knew about the Fulbright U.S. Student Program in undergrad, however at the time, I thought it was solely for liberal arts research and English teaching. It was not until I started at the Graduate School that I saw a UTHealth Houston newsletter about the now GSBS alum Alexandria (Alex) Cogdill, PhD, who accepted of a Fulbright scholarship in France for microbiology research. When I realized Fulbright allows for scientific research, the idea of applying sat in the back of my head for a few years. After I finished my coursework and passed candidacy, I began seriously considering applying. The GSBS student network was truly invaluable. I reached out to Alex, who shared her experience doing the Fulbright in the midst of her graduate career. Later on when I was applying, I received a lot of advice from another GSBS/MTSP student, Pahul Hanjara, who carried out a research Fulbright prior to starting at UTHealth Houston. So I’m tremendously grateful to those two current and past GSBS students for sharing with me their Fulbright advice and experience.

What research project are you working on currently?

My project in the lab of Gad Asher, PhD, will be an off shoot of my thesis project where I study the role of the circadian transcription factor, BMAL1, in mediating rhythms in the PVN which regulate daily energy metabolism. At the Weizmann Institute in Israel, I plan to study how the circadian rhythms of neurons synchronize and alter their circadian synchrony in response to certain hormones, neuropeptides and nutrient signals. In studying this, I’m aiming to better understand how the circadian synchrony of hypothalamic neurons may be affected by a range of biological signals, which in turn may affect the body’s energy balance. 

What goals do you have for your research career?

My goal is to continue down the path of academia to become an independent neuroscience researcher.

Why did you choose the Graduate School for your research education?

As a native Houstonian, I chose the GSBS due to the diversity of neuroscience research offered and because I enjoy living in Houston.

What advice would you give to a first-year student?

Once you get started in your thesis lab, so probably around Spring of year two, 1) apply to the GSBS Common App [application] for spring/fall awards and fellowships; and 2) sign up for presenting opportunities (i.e program retreats, department events, Graduate Student Research Day, etc.). While applying to the GSBS Common App and presenting can be some of the most intimidating tasks at the beginning of graduate school, writing the specific aims page for the application allows you to critically think about your project aims, and presenting your research helps you to build your scientific communication skills. I found it most helpful to reach out to older students in the program who received the award I was applying to. I would ask to see their application if they were willing to share it, I would ask their advice, and sometimes I would ask if they could read over my application. Don’t be afraid to apply and don’t be afraid to ask for help.

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