Emily Lowery-Gionta, Ph.D. is a graduate of our Behavioral and Integrative Neuroscience program in the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience. She is now a Research Scientist at the Center for Military Psychiatry and Neuroscience at Walter Reed Army Institute of Research (WRAIR).
As a Research Scientist, Emily identifies candidate therapeutic targets for the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and tests their utility in pre-clinical models and first-to-human studies. Her time in Dr. Todd Thiele’s laboratory at UNC laid the foundation for her current work. She says, “Under his mentorship, I learned the fundamentals of neuroscience and was introduced to the concept that aberrant adaptations in brain function stem from chronic stress or drug history and perpetuate mental health disorders. At Dr. Thiele’s lab, I used behavioral pharmacology and immunohistochemistry to understand these adaptations and their greater impact on behavior. These approaches are the cornerstone for my current pre-clinical work at WRAIR.”
Her career is technically outside of academia and in government, but Emily shares that it largely follows the same format as academia. “I must write proposals to obtain funding for my work and disseminate my findings in the greater scientific community through talks and publications,” Emily explains. “Unlike academia where the scope of work is limitless, in my role, my research is focused by the mission of WRAIR, which seeks to improve soldier health and thereby, the health of civilians. Therefore, my research goals must be purposeful in the pursuit of a treatment for PTSD while also appealing to the interests of the greater science community. I enjoy that my research is grounded in the pursuit of a treatment for an immense public health concern and hope that through this work, my basic science approach will eventually have real-world applications to patient populations.”
Carolina was Emily’s top choice to pursue a Ph.D. and she chose UNC for the opportunity to work with Dr. Thiele. She says, “The research program at UNC was very strong in terms of scientific output and funding, so I knew that I would receive excellent training in scientific methods, project development, and the writing of manuscripts and grants.” Of her time at Carolina, she enjoyed the comradery of the Thiele laboratory and the rigor of the work. “I found the lab to be an approachable, learning-friendly environment,” Emily says. “I have to say, I came to graduate school as a rather green, straight-from-undergrad student, so I very much benefited from this type of environment. Never underestimate the daily gift of a healthy work environment! All lab members were highly invested in their research questions and we worked well together to advance our understanding of the neurobiological underpinnings of alcohol abuse and dependence. Over time, I also became invested in the Triangle community and of course – basketball. It’s hard not to live in Chapel Hill and fall in love with sports rivalries.”
Emily has several strategic tips for students considering, or currently pursuing, a Ph.D. “I would advise students to develop career goals early, but to revisit them often. It is best to think carefully about career plans and be strategic – don’t limit yourself to one option or course. Develop skills that will be translatable in many different settings – remind yourself often of those skills and how they apply to other careers,” she says. “It is hard to avoid being myopic about your academic career goals while in grad school. However, our doctoral training develops skills that are invaluable in many career settings. Having a ready list of what those skills are and to what careers they may also apply will instill confidence as you decide what your next step is after graduate school.” Emily also recommends a healthy work/life balance throughout graduate school and beyond. She shares, “Caring for oneself by developing outside interests and fostering important relationships in addition to working hard will ultimately improve scientific creativity and output. Also, sometimes it is very helpful to your scientific work to set it aside to clear your head. Make sure you create time in your day to focus on things other than school, science and work. I found setting goals outside of school/science/work, like completing a half marathon, to be especially helpful.”
She pursued a career as a research scientist at WRAIR after moving to Washington, D.C. and working at the National Institutes of Health. “I began to understand the broad scope of opportunities for scientists in government, from administrative work to bench research,” says Emily. “I knew I wanted to stay active in scientific research and was looking for a collaborative environment that was engaged in scientific research with the potential for great public health impact. At WRAIR, I enjoy the collaborative, treatment-focused environment. This position encourages contact between intramural and extramural scientists and fosters conversations between basic scientists and clinicians, so the real world problems we are trying to solve remain front and center.”