“Students – they want to have this defined path, that they know, ‘this is what I’m doing, and this is how I’m going to get there’, and they feel like they are a failure if they are uncertain, or if their path meanders, or if they change their mind, or if they decide to drop a class because it’s not working out, or whatever is happening — they feel like they have to be on the go, moving as fast as they can towards that point in the future, but that is just not how life works.”
–Dr. Laura Anne Lowery
Sometimes as busy college students, it’s hard to take advice like this, when every week seems like “crunch time.” However, if a student were to take this advice from anyone, it should be from Dr. Lowery.
Dr. Lowery began her career at the University of California San Diego as an undergraduate unsure of what she wanted to study, regularly fluctuating between a degree in biology and a degree in psychology. However, becoming involved with TA roles and the on-campus housing program at UCSD, she found that she enjoyed interacting with students, had a strength in explaining complicated scientific concepts to others, and thought that she might want to be a professor.
In order to follow this path, she needed to get involved in research. At the end of her junior year, she joined a research lab that studied the neural circuitry that regulates worm egg-laying behavior, which she felt was a great combination of her dual interests in psychology and biology. While that research was engaging, it led her to wonder how the brain forms in the first place.
She took this interest to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she received her PhD in Biology and worked on pioneering research in the genetic mechanisms behind the development of the brain. At the time, her work focused on how the brain, as a whole tissue, changes shape, and she realized that understanding such a complex system would be best addressed, for her, by focusing on how single brain cells change shape. Realizing Cell Biology was her true passion, she later completed postdoctoral research at Harvard Medical School, where she became fascinated with the mechanisms behind the neuronal growth cone, which is the dynamic structure at the tip of a growing axon.
That interest has led her to the work she is currently conducting at Boston College. Here at BC, her lab studies how cells move in various developmental contexts, including axon guidance and the critical role it plays in the development of the branching of neurons in order to create our intricate nervous system. Her lab uses Xenopus laevis (frogs) as their model system, because embryonic development occurs outside of the mother, making it easier to study, and frog cells are so large and manipulatable that it is relatively easy to investigate the machine inside these cells that propels them forward, called the cytoskeleton. Microtubules are one critical element of the cytoskeleton. Her lab looks at the protein complexes (called +TIPs) that localize to the ends of microtubules and regulate microtubule behavior, which plays a key role during axon guidance as well as other types of cell movement. This biological phenomenon is the focus of Dr. Lowery’s lab.
The work she and her lab have done at Boston College has earned high recognition nationally. Being funded not only by BC, her lab has also received grants from The American Cancer Society, March of Dimes, The National Institute of Mental Health, and The National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, totalling almost 5 million dollars. Additionally, she is an author on 29 scientific publications and is invited annually to speak at numerous conferences and lectures across the nation.
Yet, despite her success as a biologist so early in her career, she still remembers the journey she took to get here. She wishes to not only teach Biology to her students, but also to encourage them to realize that college is a transitive period where not everything is supposed to make sense. She would urge you, however, to find the stuff that does make sense for you. For her, interacting with students and ultimately studying cell biology made sense. But, it’s not just going to come to you. It takes some searching and a whole lot of hard work and perseverance. To be doing what she loves at BC, it took Dr. Lowery 13 years after she completed her undergraduate studies. For you, it could be today, or it could be in 10 years, but once you’ve found it, you’ll know.