Pursuing Ph.D.s

A diverse group of Muhlenberg alums is headed for top neuroscience doctoral programs.

By: Brittany Risher  Thursday, April 8, 2021 11:07 AM

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Stanley Road Professor of Neuroscience Jeremy Teissére conducts laboratory research with Crystian Massengill '18 in 2017.

Seven Muhlenberg grads will attend some of the best neuroscience graduate programs this fall—a record number for the College.

“We've always been quite active with neuroscience research, and now it seems like the students coming into Muhlenberg want to carry out research and see the real value in having a professional relationship to research beyond Muhlenberg,” says Jeremy Teissére, Stanley Road Chair in Neuroscience.

In fact, rather than choosing an honors thesis in neuroscience, today's students are more likely to want to hit the lab. “They want publications. Having that on their resume is more important than having a thesis,” Teissére explains. In fact, neuroscience faculty encourage students to spend time as research techs before pursuing grad school. “Ph.D. programs care about substantial research experience,” Teissére explains.

To help with this, the Muhlenberg Career Center paired up with the department to develop specific workshops. “Neuroscience is such an interdisciplinary program,” says Career Center Associate Director Ryan Smolko. “How do students take research, internships and course work and sell that in the application and interview processes?”

The workshops teach how to build a resume and cold-email professors. “For research tech jobs, you can't apply through job lists. The faculty member decides who to hire and usually doesn't post an availability. You have to write cold emails and pray,” Teissere says. The Career Center also connects current students with alums who are research techs so they can learn more about the experience. Finally, they help with interview prep. “Everybody who applies to these programs is talented, smart and has the GPA, research, internships and experiences,” Smolko says. “It's the soft skills to sell that through the interview process” that make the difference.

Crystian Massengill '18, a neuroscience and religion studies major, credits Muhlenberg with shaping how he thinks about the field. “I was always interested in pursuing neuroscience, but I didn't quite appreciate the depth to which it was an incredibly cross-disciplinary science,” he says. “Taking classes in psychology, chemistry, physics and biology blew up my preconceptions and made me think more deeply.”

The courses also gave him an advantage as a research technician at Oregon Health Sciences University. “I found that my undergrad training was superior to a lot of experiences others [in the lab] had,” he says. “For example, a lot of upper-level courses are small seminars where you talk about topics with other students. That helped me engage, be challenged and think about things—and that's what lab meetings are.” He knows these skills will also benefit him this fall as he begins Harvard's Ph.D. program in neuroscience.

Similarly, Prianka H. Hashim '19, a neuroscience and women's & gender studies major, says the combination of Muhlenberg's interdisciplinary approach to neuroscience and ability to do research prepared her for work as a research technician at the University of Michigan and her upcoming time in the Driskill Graduate Program in Life Sciences at Northwestern University.

Muhlenberg “was my first opportunity to do research at the bench, and I loved it. I wanted to do more of it,” she says. That led to Michigan, which—along with Teissére support—made it clear she wanted to pursue a Ph.D. When looking at the course requirements for the Northwestern program, “I feel I've taken a prerequisite or equivalent already. I'm not concerned that I don't have the information I need to succeed,” she says.

The entire group of students (listed below) represents a diversity of backgrounds and interests. “I'm so impressed with what these alums have done. Everyone is going to a place they want to,” Teissére says.

Crystian Massengill '18
Current position: research technician, Vollum Institute/Oregon Health Sciences University
Attending: Harvard University

Luke Blecker '19
Current position: research technician, University of Wisconsin
Deciding between: University of Wisconsin, Vollum Institute/Oregon Health Sciences University or University of Colorado

Prianka H. Hashim '19
Current position: research technician, University of Michigan
Attending: Northwestern University

Dana Kneisley '19
Current position: research technician, University of Rochester
Deciding between: University of Virginia or Virginia Commonwealth University

Judith (Hudi) Licht '19
Current position: research technician, Center for Autism Research Excellence, Boston University
Attending: Northwestern University

Julia Rocereta '19
Current position: IRTA fellow, National Institutes of Health
Attending: University of Pennsylvania

Rebecca Shear '21
Deciding between: University of Pittsburgh or Rutgers University