Katherine Meckel ’11 is the recipient of a six-year, $447,000 fellowship from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) that will allow her to continue her neuroscience research through her final two years as a doctorate student and then four years of postdoctoral work.

It’s a huge honor for Meckel, who first found her passion for neuroscience research while an undergraduate at Lawrence University. Now in pursuit of her Ph.D. at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City, she is one of 31 young scientists across the country to receive the NIH Blueprint Diversity Specialized Predoctoral to Postdoctoral Advancement in Neuroscience (D-SPAN) Award. Her research is centered on neuropharmacology and gastroenterology, studying how bacteria in the gut can influence addictive-like behavior, work that has the potential to uncover novel pathways for drug development and treatments for people with substance-use disorders.

Meckel was a sophomore at Lawrence when she became intrigued with the world of neuroscience research. A biochemistry and music performance (vocal) dual-degree candidate, she had her sights set on becoming a physician specializing in vocal disorders or a scholar of vocal pedagogy. But a class she took with now-retired psychology professor Bruce Hetzler, Brain and Behavior 1, lit a fire she hadn’t expected.

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“I was so fascinated by the idea that drugs and neurotransmitters can act on receptors in the brain and elsewhere in the body, kind of like a lock and key, where the receptor is the lock and the neurotransmitter, or the drug, is the key,” she said. “What receptors the drug acts on and how those drugs tickle that particular receptor is all molecular geometry. I just found this idea so fascinating and continued taking more neuroscience classes.

“I found I really loved doing behavioral neuroscience research. I enjoyed the process of working with animals and trying to understand what was going on in their brains and how that was influencing their behavior. This, in turn, synergized with my growing love for molecular biology. These scientific questions continue to excite me to this day. My long-term goal is to understand what’s going on at a molecular level in particular cells within the brain and how that drives drug-seeking behavior.”

Meckel was able to do significant behavioral pharmacology research with Hetzler while at Lawrence. It is work she continues to build on.

It also piqued her curiosity about modern molecular biology techniques, which led her to a research job in gastroenterology at the University of Chicago after graduating from Lawrence. Her work there studied how certain peripheral factors could influence the development of inflammatory bowel disease and colorectal cancers. And that got her thinking about how peripheral factors such as the bacteria in our guts and the metabolites they produce can influence not just direct organs where they’re produced but also other organs, including the brain.

“This is something that in neuroscience we don’t usually talk about as much,” Meckel said. “We study the brain in isolation, but in actuality, the brain exists in communication with all these other organs in the body.”

Those dual interests—the neuroscience studies at Lawrence and the gastroenterology work at UChicago—led her to Mount Sinai and helped launch her current research.

“The long-term goal of this line of research is to understand how we can exploit products from the gut microbiome to potentially influence gene expression in the brain and ultimately reduce risk of relapse,” Meckel said. “Decades of research have gone into understanding how prolonged drug use causes long-term molecular adaptations in the brain. We have a sophisticated understanding of those changes, but unfortunately it hasn’t resulted in successful medicinal therapies for patients with cocaine-use disorder. We’re trying to look outside the brain to identify novel targets for therapeutics to help patients.”

Lessons from Lawrence

Meckel credits much of her success as a young scientist to the experiences she had at Lawrence. The pursuit of a dual degree in areas as seemingly disparate as biochemistry and vocal performance taught her lessons she continues to put to use on a daily basis in her research work at Mount Sinai.

“It wasn’t just my science course work at Lawrence that has deeply shaped my career as a scientist today,” she said. “It was that experience of being in the double-degree program, having to constantly negotiate being in two different worlds. Whether it was being a musician and trying to find ties between the science course work and applying that to assignments like music history journals, or vice versa. Trying to translate those two worlds and merge them together was a challenge. You are negotiating two different areas you really love. And now I’m bridging gastroenterology and neuroscience, which are two fields that normally don’t have much communication with each other.

“And all the performance training I did in the double-degree program has made me a much better communicator of my science. I am an introverted person, but it’s easier for me to go on stage and give a scientific talk at a conference or stand in front of a classroom and give a lecture because of my performance training at Lawrence.”

Whether seeking a dual degree or not, it’s the approach of a liberal arts education that can help a science student thrive, Meckel said. She sees the results all the time, whether through her own research or through the students at Mount Sinai she mentors. She praises Lawrence professors Hetzler, Nancy Wall (biology), Beth De Stasio (biology), and Stefan Debbert (chemistry), among others, for instilling in her the belief that science and a wide swath of liberal arts go hand in hand.

“I think a lot of time in STEM we place so much value on taking a bunch of science and engineering classes,” she said. “I am by no means going to deny that work is important and valuable in your training as a scientist. But I always encourage my mentees to take some liberal arts classes. Take something in history, take a foreign language, take a theater or music class. Do something that expands your perspective beyond science. That way of looking at the world from a different angle is going to make you a better scientist with a unique viewpoint.”