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Connecting women and opportunity

Womanthology is a digital magazine and professional community powered by female energy and ingenuity.

Connecting women and opportunity

Womanthology is a digital magazine and professional community powered by female energy and ingenuity.

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Soapbox Science takes a bite of the Big Apple to showcase dynamic women in science

Dr Jennifer Lennon, Postdoctoral Researcher in Biology at New York University

Dr Jennifer Lennon

Dr Jennifer Lennon is a biology researcher at NYU (New York University), with an undergraduate degree from Trinity College Dublin and an MSc and PhD from the University of Edinburgh. She is organising the first Soapbox Science event in New York, along with colleagues, to celebrate women in science in the Northeast US and beyond. The event will take place between 4pm and 7pm on Friday 23rd August 2024 at Bandshell Plaza in Central Park (Terrace Drive near West 72nd St).

Dr Jennifer Lennon
Dr Jennifer Lennon

“Discussions with other scientists can lead to stellar ideas and collaborations – in my undergraduate one of my professors said that the best research ideas are born over a shared cup of coffee, and I think that’s very true.”

Finding my love for neuroscience and genetics

My undergraduate was in the natural sciences from Trinity College Dublin, where I specialised in genetics. This is where I first became introduced to the field of neurogenetics and was in awe of the complexity of the neuronal networks of the brain, and the molecular mechanisms that regulate them! In short – how genes regulate the wiring of our brain wows me.

I then moved to the University of Edinburgh to enrol in an MSc by research in integrative neuroscience. This degree was where I discovered my passion for fruit fly research – that we could use such seemingly simple insects to ‘dissect’ the complexity of the human brain amazed me. I fell in love with the research, the university and the city and was delighted to have the opportunity to stay in my master’s lab for my doctorate research.

My PhD research combined my love of neuroscience, genetics, and fruit fly research with a biomedical and developmental aim — using the auditory neuron of the fruit fly, as a model to understand primary ciliary dyskinesia (PCD).

Advancing towards a breakthrough in the treatment of a debilitating respiratory condition

PCD is a debilitating respiratory condition affecting about 1 in 10,000 people and is often hard to diagnose, making it important to research its molecular mechanisms. Genes associated with PCD are also present in the fly and involved in regulating how they hear, their coordination as well as how their sperm move. It’s amazing how we can screen flies for defects to help identify the genes that cause PCD. In fact, almost 75% of disease-causing genes in humans are found in the humble fly!

Upon completing my PhD, I began my postdoctoral research at Professor Justin Blau’s lab at NYU. This has been a great opportunity for me – New York City is an unbelievable hub of world-leading research. This is why I’m so excited to bring Soapbox Science to the city and celebrate the amazing researchers!

Role on a day-to-day basis

Dr Jennifer LennonMy postdoctoral research looks at how neurons in the brain make and break connections throughout the day, also known as ‘neuronal plasticity’. It’s such a complex process as the human brain has a staggering 86 billion neurons so it can be very difficult to look at these neuronal changes. So instead, we use the fruit fly brain (specifically the main circadian pacemaker neurons, special brain cells that help control the fly’s internal body clock) to study the molecular mechanisms of neuronal plasticity. As we are looking at changes throughout a 24-hour day, we need to use incubators set to different time zones (so the fly brains respond as if it is different times of day but we don’t have to work 24-hour days).

Most days I’m examining fly brains which are genetically manipulated to increase or decrease genes of interest to investigate how this impacts genes that we are interested in, as well as the overall structure of the neurons. We also use drugs such as caffeine and nicotine to affect the activity of the neurons in the brains.

In addition, I mentor and supervise several undergraduate researchers’ projects, and it is so rewarding to see them embrace the scientific process and develop as scientists.

Providing much-needed insight into neurodivergence and schizophrenia

I’ve been interested in neurogenetics since my undergraduate degree, and so to continue my research career in this field is an enormous privilege. From my graduate studies, I learned the importance of using a simpler model to tackle complex conditions, so I was drawn to the idea of using a single neuronal cell type in the fly to understand the molecular mechanisms of the human brain.

A lot of the details surrounding neuronal plasticity remain unknown, and it plays such an important role in our daily life – memories, learning, sleep, as well as understanding more about neurodivergence and schizophrenia.

The best research ideas are born over a shared cup of coffee

It is important to have many different perspectives and backgrounds to more fully understand the complex topics that STEM careers address. Discussions with other scientists can lead to stellar ideas and collaborations – in my undergraduate one of my professors said that the best research ideas are born over a shared cup of coffee, and I think that’s very true. It’s vital to broaden our ideas and explore different solutions to these complex topics, but to do this, we need a wide variety of people to share their thoughts and voices.

Taking a bite of the Big Apple

I’ve always loved science communication, especially when it’s as public-facing as possible. I have been involved with events that have taken place in shopping malls, museums, schools and pubs. Getting the public interested in scientific research is so rewarding.

Soapbox Science New York posterI first heard of Soapbox Science during my PhD in the UK. I thought it seemed like such a cool and important initiative. So, when I started my postdoctoral research in New York, and I heard talks from some of the amazing researchers who work in the area, I immediately looked up whether there was a Soapbox team in the city. When there wasn’t, I figured why not start one – these researchers deserve to be celebrated!

I was nervous about the challenges of organising the first New York event but we are incredibly lucky to have so much support here. My colleague at NYU, Dr Sromana Mukherjee is a strong advocate for women in STEM, so I am delighted to have her co-organising it with me! We also have two brilliant graduate students from the City University of New York, Katherine Anderson and Sara Fresard, on our organising team, as well as generous support from NYU’s Deanery of Science. In addition, the central Soapbox Science organising team has been so helpful during the organisation process so we’re excited and we believe it’s going to be a great day!

12 female and non-binary researchers, six institutions, one amazing afternoon

We will have 12 female and non-binary researchers from six institutions in the north-east of the US. They’re fantastic people as well as researchers, and I believe it’s going to be a wonderful summer afternoon. We’ve selected Central Park as our location as it’s the heart of Manhattan, and so it is surrounded by brilliant research institutions – and even more brilliant researchers!

Get involved!

I’d invite the Womanthology community to engage with the event. Please connect with our organising team, who would be happy to share more details. Womanthology has a wonderful community and Soapbox Science NYC is delighted to be a part of it.

Celebrating scientific research in New York

I’m truly excited to bring Soapbox Science to NYC and celebrate this city’s incredible research. By setting it up here I’m looking forward to NYC being a place where Soapbox Science can continue to flourish and grow – and on a personal level, I’m excited to continue expanding my science communication experience. I’m not sure at this point where exactly my career will take me, but I’m excited to find out!

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