We’re taking time to get to know the members of the GSA’s Early Career Scientist Committees. Join us to learn more about our early career scientist advocates.

Caroline Muirhead
Communication and Outreach Subcommittee
Worcester Polytechnic Institute

Research Interest

I didn’t always know I wanted to make science my career. In fact, I started college as an engineering major. And while I still have a love of math, I realized in my junior year of college that my main interest was in science. I added biology as a double major and dipped my feet into biology research. Between junior and senior year of college I worked in the Weathers lab at Worcester Polytechnic Insitute studying Artemisia annua, a plant that produces the antimalarial drug artemisinin. After college, I worked at a small biotech company before deciding I wanted to attend graduate school.

Since joining graduate school, I’ve become a C. elegans researcher. I work in a systems neuroscience lab where I research how worms respond to sensory cues. Worms secrete chemicals called ascarosides to communicate. We use these ascarosides to study sensation in worms. We ask questions like, why do some worms respond in different ways to the same ascaroside? Or which neurons and receptors are sensing this chemical? My project is about how worms make behavioral decisions in response to ascarosides. Put simply, if I expose the worms to a positive and a negative stimulus at the same time, how will they respond? Either the negative or positive cue will need to take precedent. I want to know what the neurons are doing when the worms make this choice. I think this is a really interesting question because it’s something that we encounter all the time! Think about how often you sense more than one thing at the same time and your brain is able to make a choice about how to respond. The interesting part about studying this with worms is that we can figure out what is going on at the cellular level – a task that would be impossible in a complex organism.  

As a PhD-trained scientist, you have many career options. What interests you the most?

While I’ve really been enjoying conducting research, my main interest is teaching. This past year, I had the opportunity to participate in the ASPIRE fellowship program. This fellowship pairs graduate students with community college professors at a local community college. I was mentored by a professor at Quinsigamond Community College. I was able to work with one of the introductory biology classes during lab sections and complete a few guest lectures. I had a lot of fun, and I really liked the students! Additionally, I got to talk to my mentor about what it was like being a professor at a community college. I had a very positive experience in the ASPIRE fellowship program, and it made me interested in teaching at a community college.    

I’m also open to other opportunities! In college, I volunteered at the EcoTarium, a science and nature museum in Worcester. I’ve always had a love for nature and science museums, so I could always see myself working at a science museum.

Finally, I’ve been enjoying my research and worms. So you never know, I may stay in research for some time after graduating and complete a post doc position. Careers are long, and I hope to enjoy many things over the course of mine.

In addition to your research, how do you want to advance the scientific enterprise?

I hope to interest new minds in science and STEM. I’m passionate about this because young students are the next generation of scientists.

This summer, I ran the Frontier’s summer camp at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. This is a two week long camp for high school students interested in science. We spent the first week of camp learning about neuroscience and working with C. elegans in the lab. During the second week of camp, students conducted their own experiments. It was a lot of fun, and I loved seeing the creativity of the students! In past summers, I’ve run other science summer camps for slightly younger students. I even got to run a camp over Zoom during the pandemic. It was a challenge—we had to ship student lab materials so that they could do lab stuff at home—but overall, it was great that we were still able to teach students science skills remotely. When I was in high school, I participated in science summer camps, and it sparked my interest in STEM. These camps are important for students to start exploring different scientific areas. I hope to continue participating in summer camps that drive students towards STEM fields.

I’ve also served as a mentor for the Women’s Research and Mentorship Program (WRAMP) at my university. I worked in a group with an undergraduate student and two high schoolers on a small research project in the lab. Although this project involved research, the main purpose of the program was to mentor the students and teach them about how research works. I think this project was a success because after WRAMP, one of the high school students was awarded funding to work in our lab through the Massachusetts Life Science Center. She accomplished a lot through the summer and continued as a volunteer in our lab during the school year. Now, she’s continuing scientific research in college. I’m so proud of her, and I’m really happy that I was her WRAMP mentor! I love seeing a student enjoy research enough to continue it. I hope that I am able to mentor more students in a lab setting.

As a leader within the Genetics Society of America, what do you hope to accomplish?

As part of my work with communications and outreach subcommittee, I’m really hoping to do outreach to high school students about scientific research during the school year. I think back to myself as a high schooler, and I realize I had no idea about all of the different model organisms researchers use. I understood why people worked with mice, but I had no idea about all of important research people do in flies, worms, yeast, and beyond. And now, as a worm researcher, I realize how important non-mouse model organisms are too. This year, I plan to talk to high school students about the different types of research that is possible in these models. This way, when these high school students start college and want to join a lab, they’ll have a better understanding of what these labs might be doing.

Other members of my subcommittee have participated in similar types of outreach where they talk to students about model organisms. They’ve offered to help make slides and review my materials to make sure it’s understandable to high school students. They’ve also helped with avenues of connecting to high school teachers that might be interested in having a scientist come speak in their school.  

I also hope to gain more presentation and conference experience through GSA. The first GSA conference I attended was a virtual conference hosted during the first summer of the pandemic. It was nice to still hear other research virtually. Last summer, I attended the International C. elegans Conference in Scotland. I had the opportunity to meet other enthusiastic and creative scientists. I especially enjoyed the poster sessions where I can talk to people one-on-one about their research. Overall, attending the GSA conference was an enriching experience, and I hope to continue honing my presentation skills at them!

Previous leadership experience

  • Graduate Student Government – Biology and biotechnology student senator (current)
  • Women’s Research and Mentorship Program mentor (2022)
  • Smith College Ice Hockey Captain (2015-2017)

Graduate student and postdoctoral leaders from the Early Career Scientist Committees of the GSA.

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