Tears Turn to Success for Graduate Student

  • August 9th, 2019

Determination Brings NIH Fellowship

By Adam Jones

A University of Alabama graduate student poses near her workspace in a biolgoical research lab.
Doctoral student Jennie Thies received a highly competitive NIH Diversity Research Supplement to help support her research.

Sitting in her adviser’s office with tears running down her face, Jennie Thies was unsure if she could stick with graduate school.

It was the start of her third year, and she was facing her qualifying exam to transition into candidacy for the doctorate program. She was balancing her responsibilities in the classroom and lab.

Dr. Kim Caldwell, professor of biological sciences and Thies’ adviser, comforted and encouraged. Resilient, Thies stayed the course.

She passed the exam and continued in her research in the Caldwell lab. Later that year, she was recognized for outstanding teaching by a graduate student by the department of biological sciences.

Now, she is starting her fourth year with more confidence after winning a highly competitive national grant. Thies was recently awarded an NIH Diversity Research Supplement, a two-year pre-doctoral fellowship that covers stipend, tuition and health care while supporting her research. The program supports ongoing dissertation research training for individuals from under-represented groups.

“I look back and see that I’ve come so far these past three years, and I’m incredibly proud of myself,” Thies said. “It’s so hard to see when you’re in the moment.  “The payoff isn’t always immediate, but, at the end, it will all be worth it.”

Self-motivation

Thies’ journey to this point began with basketball. As a teenager, some friends back home in rural Jamestown, New York, suggested she play. She picked it up, eventually making her high school team.

College offers followed, and she accepted a scholarship to Gannon University, a private college in Erie, Pennsylvania, that competes in NCAA Division II. Off the court, Thies was an undergraduate teaching assistant and research assistant at Gannon; and this is where she found her joy for working in the lab.

“It’s my comfort,” she said of working in the lab. “I’m a very driven and self-motivated person, so I like the fact that I’m always challenged at the bench.”

Juggling school, basketball and research was not easy, but Thies’ resolve was strong.

“Time management was one of the most crucial skills I learned in college, and that is one of the reasons I am as successful as I am in graduate school, because I still try to live by those things that helped me be successful as an undergrad,” she said.

Thies studies neurodegenerative diseases in the lab of Drs. Guy and Kim Caldwell.

Worm Shack

The love of discovery in the lab led her to consider graduate school for biological research. Since she worked, at Gannon, with tiny roundworms known as C. elegans, which share roughly half their genes with humans, she looked for places to continue with the animal model.

That search brought her to the “Worm Shack” at UA. Dr. Kim Caldwell, along with her husband, Dr. Guy Caldwell, University Distinguished Research Professor, work with C. elegans to study human diseases. Its basic features allow inexpensive and rapid testing for a range of neurological diseases, as researchers can induce similar effects in the worm.

This can be an important step in evaluating therapies in a chain of discovery from cells to animal models and, eventually, humans.

In the Caldwell Lab, Thies works to understand environmental factors of Parkinson’s disease. She seeks to isolate an active compound of a secondary metabolite produced by soil bacteria that causes neurodegeneration in the worms.

“There are a lot of genetic correlations to Parkinson’s disease, but a lot more of the recent research has shown the environment can play an equal part in development of the disease; especially for those who are already predisposed with genetic factors, ” she said.

With the NIH fellowship, Thies will transition away from teaching labs to focus all of her time on research, but she will still give back through her role as an ambassador for the Graduate School.

“I like to see other people succeed more than myself,” she said. “I grew up in a small town and didn’t have the most expensive car or go to the most expensive school. It’s important to remember where you came from, and so sometimes you connect to those people who are similar to you to help them realize you don’t need all these fancy things to be a successful person.”

The University of Alabama, the state’s oldest and largest public institution of higher education, is a student-centered research university that draws the best and brightest to an academic community committed to providing a premier undergraduate and graduate education. UA is dedicated to achieving excellence in scholarship, collaboration and intellectual engagement; providing public outreach and service to the state of Alabama and the nation; and nurturing a campus environment that fosters collegiality, respect and inclusivity.