Student Life

Interview with a neuroscience PhD student

Kayla talks about her research, her undergrad days, and how she blows off steam.

Feb 9, 2016

23-year-old Kayla Stone’s journey has taken her all the way from Estevan, Saskatchewan, to the University of Lethbridge where she first completed a Bachelor of Science degree in psychology and then a master’s degree in neuroscience. Now she continues her journey in the Netherlands to start her PhD in neuroscience.

I interviewed Kayla to learn more about her post-secondary path, how she went from a bachelor’s degree to a PhD, what she does to blow off steam, and her future goals. Kayla also shares advice for new students, talks candidly about getting bad grades in first year, and describes the fascinating research she’ll be pursuing in the Netherlands.

Q. Why did you enroll in a Bachelor of Science in psychology?

Kayla: I started in the [Bachelor of Neuroscience program], but then I had to take bio, chemistry, and calculus and I hated it. So I switched to [psychology] because I could take all the neuroscience classes I wanted. So that’s what I did, I took like a million neuroscience classes.

Q. I thought that your bachelor’s degree needed to be in the same discipline as your master’s?

Kayla: You don’t need the same [bachelor’s]. It’s your choice because it’s very independent, right? You’re making the choices, you’re doing the research. It’s good too though because after you’re done your bachelor’s you don’t feel like you’re stuck in that field. It generally helps to have a background though; a supervisor will generally be more likely to take you.

Q. What was your favourite experience in undergrad?

Kayla: I think what I liked most about my bachelor’s—this is going be like, “oh you’re such a nerd!”—but getting into research starting in my second year … That’s when I started to realize, wow I really like this and I felt really fulfilled. And then we started to grow a lab and I became really close with everyone in that lab and it began to feel like a family, so I had an academic family … I really enjoyed that.

Q. How did you get into research so early on in your academic career? Isn’t research just in your master’s?

Kayla: I did [a] movement disorders class, it was really interesting, you learned about Parkinson’s disease, Huntington’s disease, Chorea, all that stuff, and learned how it worked with the brain and movement and I just found it fascinating. One day I emailed Claudia, who became my master’s supervisor … and I said to her: “when you presented yourself at the start of the year, I noticed your path, going into a bachelor’s in psychology and a master’s in neuroscience … I’m really interested in that path, I was wondering if I could come talk to you?” She said: “absolutely.”

She [told me]: “I’m also looking for students in my lab, so if you’re interested I can tell you more about the research we do” … I started volunteering and doing independent studies and an honours thesis and then I did a master’s with her.

Q. How did your first experience of freedom affect your grades?

Kayla: My first year [grades] hurt me until my fourth year. I didn’t do that well, so it doesn’t matter how many A+’s you get, it still sticks with you. I had a really good time in my first year, I mean I had a wonderful time and I met lots of wonderful people but ya, I think some people deal with it better than others.

Q. Is there anything you would do differently?

Kayla: I think I’ve had a really good experience; the only thing is I would redo Chemistry 100! That’s the only thing academically, because I got like a C+ in it and it haunted me forever! But I honestly wouldn’t be where I am today if I did anything differently and I’m glad that I took the risks I did ...

Q. What extra-curricular activities did you do during your undergraduate?

Kayla: I was the vice president of P.A.N.I.C (now the Psych Club), which was the psychology and neuroscience club. We had professor meet and greets, it was good connections because everyone was either a major in psychology or neuroscience.

Kayla was also the Academic Chair of the Delta Eta Iota Sorority at the University of Lethbridge.

Q. What advice would you give to new students?

Kayla: I would say, don’t be afraid to put yourself out there. Don’t be afraid to join a club, talk to a professor if things aren’t working out, or talk to your [teaching assistant]. Don’t be afraid to talk to the person sitting next to you in your class. It’s the coolest experience when you start university and you start to meet new people and gain different perspectives and that’s how you understand that university is not high school and your world is really big. I would say don’t be shy.

Q. What’s submitting a PhD proposal like? How did you get funding?

Kayla: Generally, for a PhD position you either seek funding yourself, your supervisor funds you, or it’s a combination of both. Obtaining funding as a student is a long and intensive process. Usually, the student writes a research proposal that encompasses a detailed plan of what they intend to investigate for four years and submits it with their curriculum vitae (an academic resume). For some funding agencies, an interview with the student is required.

Obtaining funding for graduate school is very competitive, it can take anywhere from 6-12 months to find out the results. Kayla was fortunate enough to obtain full funding for the duration of her PhD studies.

Q. What will your PhD investigate?

Kayla: My PhD thesis will be on body representation in healthy individuals and individuals with body integrity identity disorder (BIID). BIID is this disorder where you believe that one of your limbs, it’s usually your left leg, doesn’t belong to your body to the point where you actually want to amputate it. It’s a really interesting disorder and they don’t know much about it, it’s not in the DSM yet, because they don’t know enough about it.

What they do know is that it’s something that seems to happen to people from birth, so they’ve always had this feeling, so they feel over complete. So simply, they feel like their limb just does not belong but they can feel it at the tactile level so if you stroke their leg or whatever they can feel you. They can look at their leg and say ‘well ya, that’s my leg but it just doesn’t feel like my leg.’ So we’re going to use different visual and tactile cues to investigate this disorder, but also look at healthy individuals to see how we actually look at our body to compare.

Q. That must be tough work! How do you blow off steam?

Kayla: Yoga! Yoga is my favourite, like the last couple years I’ve really gotten into it. Not necessarily because of being stressed about my master’s or anything, but just because of personal stressors so it really helped me balance and it took me a long time to get into yoga. I was like, ‘I don’t understand why people are into yoga yadda-yadda’, but once I finally hit that connection I couldn’t let it go. And it really made me a happier person inside. And it really helps you in those moments where you have to step back and say: ‘ok take a breath, ok stay present.’ Yoga honestly helped me a lot because you’re moving your body, but you’re breathing and meditation helps a lot too, but that is like my best way to cope with my stress.

Q. What are your goals after you get your PhD?

Kayla: So after the PhD you do a post-doctoral study and so this is where you go and work for 1-2 years, now it’s becoming even more than that because it’s such a competitive field, it could be up to 3-4 years. You do that for a couple years in somebody’s lab. In this case you can do research and you can write papers but you don’t have to write a thesis because you’ve already done that part, but you gain some more experience before you try to apply for professorship at different universities. That would be my ideal goal, but we’ll see how the next four years go. In the end though, when I’m finished my PhD I’ll only be 27, so it’s not like, ‘oh god this is it!’

Q. How do you stay so passionate about neuroscience?

It’s a competitive field but I enjoy it, and as long as I enjoy it I’m going to continue doing it. And if someday I don’t enjoy it, then I won’t do it anymore.


University of Lethbridge

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