An early start on doctorate research

There were plenty of options for Kyra Parker (’21 Neuroscience) when she was deciding where to go to graduate school, but the decision was made considerably easier by having had the opportunity to assist in groundbreaking research as an undergraduate at Washington State University.

She would stay in the College of Veterinary Medicine and continue the work she started in Dr. Gary Wayman’s lab as a member of the college’s prestigious Students Targeted toward Advanced Research Studies (STARS) program. The program allows students like Parker to get an early start on research and earn a doctorate in as few as seven years.

“I had thought about going other places, but since I was already working on a project that I really liked and I was doing it basically on what I always thought I was going to do, it just made sense to stay,” Parker said.

Now in her second year of the Department of Integrative Physiology and Neuroscience’s doctorate program in neuroscience, Parker is working on identifying neuronal signaling pathways that are involved in neurodevelopment and how exercise can influence the pathways.

“I am specifically interested in a protein called apelin and how it modulates the beneficial effects that maternal exercise can have on fetal neurodevelopment,” Parker said. “The hope is we will be able to use that protein as a target to correct that development or to supplement women who can’t exercise.”

Her research focus is not surprising considering Parker’s commitment to fitness. As an undergraduate, she was a member of WSU varsity rowing team, and she now serves as both a volleyball and fitness coach.

“I am being 100% honest in saying that my research in exercise is purely coincidental,” she said. “However, I have been in sports my whole life, and I think athletics has created an ingrained drive to perform my best and do well that translates into my research.”

As a STARS student, Parker found herself in Dr. Ryan McLaughlin’s lab in the summer following her first year at WSU assisting on a project involving cannabis. She later rotated into Wayman’s lab, where she started work that laid the foundation for her current research. Prior to graduating with her bachelor’s degree, she also rotated with Dr. Suzy Appleyard to learn electrophysiology techniques.

“The STARS program helped me get a head start on my research career. I was able to do my rotations early and pick a lab for my graduate studies before I began and so I was able to start my thesis-focused research right away,” Parker said. “I have known I wanted to do research in neuroscience for a long time, so this program has been perfect for me.”

Parker said she will likely seek out a post-doctoral position when she wraps up her doctorate to gain additional experience before transitioning to work in industry science.

Parker is also an ARCS (Achievement Rewards for College Scientists) fellow. The ARCS Foundation advances science and technology in the United States by providing financial awards to academically outstanding students who are U.S. citizens studying to complete degrees in science, engineering, math, technology, and medical research.