Abby Colburn

Abby Colburn

Abby Colburn decided to continue her studies at UConn after earning her bachelor’s degree in allied health sciences in May 2016. She plans to graduate with her master’s degree in exercise science from the Department of Kinesiology next year. Since the last time we spoke with her, Colburn has remained actively involved in organizations on campus and taking advantage of opportunities to travel and study abroad. She’s explored her passion for research and is looking at options to start medical school.

Where did you study as an undergraduate?

I studied at UConn.

What was your major?

My major was allied health sciences.

Why did you decide to go to graduate school?

I was planning to go to med school but I started doing exercise science research as an undergraduate and I really liked it. The faculty, especially Dr. Douglas Casa of kinesiology and my mentor, Dr. Jeffrey Anderson at Student Health Services, convinced me that research is also a good path for med school. I was always on this set path for med school and so I welcomed the opportunity to explore something different.

Who is your advisor?

Dr. Elaine Lee of the Department of Kinesiology.

What is your field of research?

Exercise science and exercise physiology. Our research lab looks at human performance, particularly exercise in the heat. We’re going to the Falmouth Road Race in Falmouth, MA, to conduct research. The race has a high incident of exertional heat stroke. We’re also going to Hotter’N Hell, which is a hundred-mile cycling race in Texas that takes place at the end of August. We do physiological studies so we look at dehydration, nutrition, etc., but we also take blood samples and examine biomarkers, enzymes and what’s going on at the cellular level.

We also work with Caenorhabditis elegans, which are microscopic worms that share about 40 percent of our genome. By applying different concentrations of salt, we can mimic dehydration to study the cells to better understand what’s happening in our own bodies.

Name one aspect of your work that you like.

There is so much that I enjoy doing that it’s hard to pick one thing! I like that we study the whole picture and that caught my interest when I started this research as an undergrad. When we look at human performance, we study behavioral factors, dehydration and heat stroke but then we combine that with examination of blood samples and using the C. elegans to analyze an external phenotype. This work offers this fascinating internal look into what’s occurring.

Overall, I really love my department and everyone is so supportive. Research wasn’t something I was initially interested in as an undergrad and the people here really made me love it. I’ve heard these horror stories of people in undergraduate research complaining they do menial work and feel that people don’t care about them, but my department taught me everything about conducting research so as to feel comfortable working on my own. They have encouraged me to explore my own interests and embark on my own projects. Everyone is open and very encouraging about anything I want to do, letting me apply for my own grants and pushing me to publish and write. It’s great that we have all these awesome people supporting us!

What do you feel is your greatest accomplishment so far?

I gave my first presentation last year at a conference for the New England Chapter of the American College of Sports Medicine. It was on a study that I did for my undergraduate thesis. I also just submitted those results as a manuscript to get published. I never thought I’d be doing research so it’s amazing being at this point where I feel comfortable sharing it and having other people read it.

The department really prepared me for the presentation and walked me through all the steps. I was still nervous, especially since I had to speak first, but I felt good up there!

What do you hope to do once you get your degree?

This was a big unknown for me the past year after all my exposure to research, but I do want to go to med school and become an MD. I’m hoping to continue my research so I’m trying to find a way to combine everything. I’ve just started applying to medical schools.

Is there anything else you would like us to know about you?

I just joined the Persistence of Women in STEM Committee. It’s important to keep women in this field and empower them. The committee consists of undergraduates, graduates and faculty. We all meet to combine our perspectives and strategize ways to help women stay in these fields and reach their goals.

I was in Italy this past summer for the Atlantis Project. It’s a fellowship opportunity to shadow physicians abroad. I followed doctors at a hospital in San Raffaele during their weekly rotation.

By Jason M. Sheldon