Rachel Anderson

Rachel Anderson, Graduate Research & Teaching Assistant
University of Iowa

Life Inside the Lab:

What is your research topic? In short, I study how chronic stress influences the prefrontal cortex in a rodent model. I am also interested in the stress-hormone, corticosterone. To study how both of these effect the prefrontal cortex, I fill neurons with a fluorescent dye that allows me to image dendrites at high resolution on a confocal microscope.  I am really interested in dendritic spines. This is where most of the excitatory contact in the cortex occurs. Changes in these spines can lead to aberrant behavior and cognition. We see that chronic stress (and high levels of corticosterone) severely decreases levels of these spines in the prefrontal cortex, and this corresponds with decreases in working memory. My dissertation is looking at how we can possible prevent this loss.

anderson_rRachel Anderson is Graduate Research and Teaching Assistant at University of Iowa Dept. of Neuroscience. Follow her science @rmandrson

What was your best day in science? I think my best day of science was when I had an idea about how to analyze my data (that was separate from any suggestion I had gotten from my PI) that turned into my first first-author publication in Journal of Neuroscience.

What was your worst day in science? I don’t think it is a specific day (though a few grave mistakes come to mind). My worst science days were when I went months (almost a year…) without really anything working for me. It is hard to come in day after day with nothing to show for it.

What did you study at university? In college I started out as a biology major. I loved biology and considered veterinary school. But then I took a psychology class and became fascinated with behavior. I became a psychology and biology double major as an attempt to create my own neuroscience major (which was not offered at my university). Now I am getting my PhD in psychology with an emphasis on behavioral neuroscience.

What does your average day look like? It really depends. But most of my work involves high-resolution imaging on a confocal microscope so chances are you will find me in a dark room in the basement of the biology building. But I also teach (which I love!) so I often begin my mornings on the confocal, break to teach, and end up doing some analysis on the computer in the afternoon.

anderson_r2Rachel presenting her work at the annual Society for Neuroscience conference!

What are some of the highlights of your career? Publishing my first first-author publication in the Journal of Neuroscience. Teaching my first class and having students get really excited about neuroscience. Winning a trainee travel award to the Neurobiology of Stress workshop which allowed me to present my work to a bunch of my favorite scientists.

What is your favorite piece of technology or equipment you get to use in your job? The laser scanning confocal microscope! I get to image such pretty neurons!!

Life Outside of Lab

Where did you grow up? My dad was in the military, so I was born in Japan. Then my family moved to Utah, and then on to Minnesota where I went to high school and college.

What profession did you think you would be when you were a kid? A veterinarian 

What do you do to relax outside of lab? Run! And read. Lots of both.

Do you have any pets? Yes! A pug named Cooper.

Do you have any fun hobbies? I run a lot, does that count as a hobby? I am training for two marathons this upcoming year. I also enjoy camping with my husband.

How did your family life develop alongside your career? I met my husband my second year of graduate school. He is not in academia which is such a breath of fresh air. There were difficulties at first because I was probably over-working in lab and bringing my anxiety home with me. But now I have a better balance. It is so nice to come home and have someone to talk to about things other than the pressure of grad school.

Big Picture

What was your biggest motivation to obtain your PhD? My undergraduate psychology advisor. I didn’t even know what getting a PhD meant until he told me. Now that I am here, my motivation comes more intrinsically- I really love teaching and want a career in this field.

Is there any one event or person who/that made you want to be a scientist? I think my high school biology teacher really encouraged me and told me that science was something I could do if I wanted. In college, my psychology advisor was the biggest supporter of me. He saw something in me that I didn’t see and encouraged me to go to graduate school and obtain my PhD. Mentors are so important. I still go to him for advice.

Why were you drawn to science? Did you ever consider another career path? I love logic and finding the solutions to problems. I loved human behavior but I wanted to know what caused that behavior. I love science because there are so many things we don’t know but could know- with asking the right questions and a passion to try.

Why do you think it is important to have more women in STEM? I think it is important to have a variety of people from all walks of life in STEM because the varied experiences bring different questions and different ways of answering those questions to the field. The same type of person will probably come to look at a topic the same way. We need different types of thinking to solve our most difficult problems in science.

What is your best advice for girls interested in science? Don’t count yourself out. I think too many people don’t think they can do it before they even try. Give yourself a chance- you are just as worthy.

What was your biggest challenge during your degree ? I think the biggest challenge in both getting my bachelor’s as well as obtaining my PhD is the constant comparison to others and believing that I am not as good enough/smart enough/creative enough. I am my own worst critic and I have gotten in my own way many times.


What is your favorite book? SO MANY. I am an avid reader. But one of my favorites is “In Search of Memory: The Emergence of a New Science of Mind” by Eric Kandel.
What is your favorite desk snack? Chocolate covered almonds
What would you listen to while writing? Nothing- I need silence to write.
What was your favorite subject in high school? Biology
What is the strangest thing on your desk now? A stuffed pug.
Organization nut, or curated chaos? Organization nut.
What color socks are you wearing? Blue- with pugs on them (Sense a theme?)

Follow Rachel on Twitter: @rmandrson