Biology's Kucenas Earns Prestigious Mentoring Award
Sarah Kucenas’s recently expanded lab includes its own water-treatment plant and can house up to 50,000 zebrafish and hundreds of fish tanks. The associate professor of biology, cell biology and neuroscience also oversees a team of five graduate students, one postdoctoral fellow, one senior research scientist, eight undergraduates and one fish facility manager in her federally funded research program.
Her internationally recognized research offers promising discoveries related to nerve cells that are essential to the proper functioning of our bodies. This summer, her impact in the lab as a valuable mentor also was recognized. Kucenas was selected for the Landis Mentoring Award for Outstanding Mentorship, a new annual award from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) at the National Institutes of Health.
Named in honor of former NINDS director Story Landis, the national award recognizes faculty members who have shown dedication to superior mentorship and training in neuroscience research.
Kucenas, who started her own lab at the University of Virginia in 2009, said she is proud to have been able to at least partially recreate the fantastic mentoring environments she experienced as a young aspiring research scientist.
“I consider all of the people in my lab professional scientists, and although I mentor each person individually with their career stage in mind, I treat everyone in the lab the same scientifically, regardless of degree or experience,” Kucenas said. “I love the varied perspectives that come from having a lab populated with trainees at all stages of their careers and actively try to maintain representation of each trainee stage in my lab at all times.”
Kucenas first became interested in researching glia, a type of nerve cell, as a graduate student at Saint Louis University. Little was known at the time about glia, named after the Greek word for “glue.” As illuminated by years of research by Kucenas and her team, glia hold together brain matter, and are key components in the development of the central and peripheral nervous systems. The cells also are important to the regeneration or repair of these systems in response to disease or injury. The research conducted in Kucenas’s lab could lead to the development of drugs that could help the nervous system repair itself, with implications for the treatment of childhood neurodegenerative diseases, including muscular dystrophy, Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease, multiple sclerosis, autism and bipolar disorder. Other neurodegenerative diseases that often develop later in life, such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, also involve glial defects.
Laura Fontenas, a postdoctoral fellow in Kucenas’s lab, says she left France two-and-a-half years ago to work at UVA because of Kucenas’s impressive reputation.
“It was my best decision ever,” Fontenas said. “The best way to define Sarah is to say that she wants other people to experience success before her own success. She wants everyone in her lab to be successful, happy and passionate about science. She encourages us to pursue our own projects, and she is very supportive.”
Ashtyn Smith, a fourth-year graduate student pursuing a Ph.D. in neuroscience, joined Kucenas’s lab in January.
“When I’m talking one-on-one with her about my science, she’s enthusiastic, she’s coming up with ideas with me, and she really makes you feel like a team member. I find that really motivating because she really does try to treat you like a junior colleague who’s a part of the team and we’re working toward the same goals. She really values your opinion and values guiding you to where you need to go to be successful. She’s very attentive to your needs and to what you need to succeed in your career.”
Kucenas said she likes to push the people in her lab to think creatively and to design risky experiments.
“They often joke that it’s my designated role in our weekly lab meetings to ask the most off-the-wall question or suggest experiments not yet feasible. And though that may be true, I think it serves two purposes. Most importantly, it gets them thinking outside of the box,” Kucenas said. “My perspective is often two or three steps removed because I’m not the one at the bench doing the experiment. By pushing them to see their science from my perspective, it often helps them step outside of their bubble and view their work with a more critical and removed eye.
“Secondly, it encourages fearlessness. … I was lucky enough to be trained to never ignore a scientific question or direction simply because it required learning a new field or technique. By suggesting sometimes ‘impossible’ experiments, I’ve watched my lab not only shed their fears about learning new techniques, they have also embraced my approach to asking questions, and they now extend their hypotheses beyond what is expected or currently technically feasible. When they realize that there really is no limit intellectually to science, it’s allowed them to truly explore the possibilities of their projects and push past any boundaries in their studies and think of their science in terms of ‘what could we ask next,’ not ‘what do we already know.’
The Landis award provides $100,000 in direct cost towards an awardee’s existing NINDS grant to support continuing efforts toward fostering the career advancement of trainees. Her internationally recognized research offers promising discoveries related to nerve cells that are essential to the proper functioning of our bodies. This summer, Sarah Kucenas's impact in the lab as a valuable mentor also was recognized.