A Day at UVA

Last Wednesday, a few members of the Heideman lab (myself, Adryan, Elise, Fine and Melissa) took a day trip to visit the Rissman lab at the University of Virginia.  Dr. Heideman did a post-doctoral position in Dr. Rissman’s lab, when he was making his transition from studying seasonal rhythms in bats in the field to studying the similar questions in a lab-based endocrinology/physiology context.  Dr. Rissman is an incredibly accomplished investigator in the field of neuroendocrinology (and has collected a few SBN accolades!) and is also one of the nicest, most approachable people I have ever met.  She and Dr. H. are old friends, and we were visiting for an informal tour of UVA’s neuroscience grad program.

The five of us had a nice, early morning drive to Charlottesville, with only minor trouble finding parking.  As we were hustling down a street to Jordan Hall where we would attend the Wednesday morning Rissman lab meeting, I took a fantastically stupid fall on the sidewalk and skinned my knees pretty badly.  Not only did I walk into a lab meeting full of new, smart strangers with blood dripping down my shins, you can also be assured that I am in fact the most graceful person you know.  Just a fun fact.

Besides my embarrassing affliction, the Rissman lab meeting was refreshingly similar to an average Heideman lab meeting.  After a round of introductions, one of the grad students gave a short presentation about the progress she’s made on her project and a brief discussion followed.  In place of the chocolate Heideman spoils us with, Dr. Rissman had provided bagels.  It was reassuring to me that our undergraduate lab functioned similarly to a lab catered more towards graduate students.  (Side note: it made me glad that W&M is undergrad-focused.  I don’t know if I could take being a lab grunt like most undergrads are at other universities.)

After the lab meeting, the Rissman graduate students took us out to lunch in Charlottesville.  (Another side note: I visited UVA as a high schooler and didn’t like it enough to not apply at all.  Now I have no idea why because Charlottesville is awesome.)  We went to Boylan Heights, a “gourmet burger bar.”  I think it’s safe to say it was one of the best burgers I’ve ever had…  Honestly it was a great lunch overall.  The grad students were engaging and fun conversationalists, the food was great, and on top of that everything that Boylan Heights serves was obtained from a local merchant.  Yay for local, organic (and yummy) food.  Dr. Rissman had provided some money to treat us to lunch, which I’ve found is pretty typical in the science world.  Apparently Charlottesville has a higher restaurant-per-capita ratio than New York does.  Pretty impressive, and delicious.

Following lunch, the grad students took us through some of the medical research buildings on campus until we came to the office of Bettina Winckler, Ph.D., the outgoing director of the neuroscience grad program.  She was generous enough to spend an hour with the five of us, discussing what the admissions committee at UVA looks for in applicants and about applying to and succeeding in graduate school in general.  The best piece of advice I took away from her was that grad programs want to see a “fire in the belly” of their applicants.  They want to know you have passion for research, and the drive to stick it out during the exasperating, exhaustive process of acquiring a Ph.D.

To cap off the day, we met with Dr. Rissman in her office.  She chatted with us about our research interests and post-undergrad plans, and offered any advice she could think of as well as names we should look for in the neuroendocrinology research community.  We then proceeded to get soaked in a rainstorm on our way back to the car, but it was alright because we ducked into the cutest coffee shop of all time, Para Coffee (seriously it gives The Grind here a run for its money) and I got the Honey Bear latte and suddenly it didn’t matter that we were so wet.

All in all, it was a fantastic day despite the weather and unfortunate tumble on the sidewalk.  As of right now, I can definitely see myself applying to UVA’s neuroscience graduate school.  If it wasn’t in Virginia I could also see myself going there after graduating from William & Mary.  However, as much as I love this dear state, I think I need to get out for a little while.  For anyone else that might be reading and is interested in neuroscience grad programs: UVA has a great thing going.  Instead of applying to a specific department according to your interests, such as pharmacology or endocrinology, they have it set up where you apply to an “umbrella” neuroscience program (the program being distinct from a department).  Within the neuroscience program, you can do rotations within whatever department suits your fancy.  That way, when it comes time to select the lab you want to do your Ph.D. work in, your options are wide and variable, but you’ll still complete your Ph.D. in neuroscience.  This system is fairly new, but it’s a great idea.  Being a WM student, I’m pretty sure I’m not allowed to say anything nice about UVA…. Just don’t tell anyone on me okay?  They’re pretty cool over there in Charlottesville.