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Learning in Every Nook and Cranny

Or, "How to publish before you're 20!"

Junior Honors student Allison Pickens is truly a force to be reckoned with. She has a resume even longer and more impressive than her major, Genetics, Genomics, and Biotechnology, and she still finds time to enjoy the small things in life like crocheting and watching “The Office” with friends.

If you encounter Alli in the halls of the Maeser, she will save her science background to tell you last. Her joy comes from lots of facets in her life. She would first tell you about her love of violin music and how she has been playing for ten years. Following that, she may dive into Honors and how she has found the joy of learning taught in every nook and cranny of the program. Alli loves how the Honors Program encourages learning for learning's sake, instead of learning to pass an exam or qualification. In 2020, Alli gave back to the Honors community by serving on the Honors Student Leadership Council where she helped to train and support the Honors Ambassadors. She even started a tradition where members of the council would get together and enjoy a couple episodes of “The Office” before getting down to business.

Beyond these activities, Alli was also a published author before the age of twenty. In the Suli lab in the Cell Biology and Physiology department, Alli researched zebrafish under the guidance of PhD candidate Anna Martin. She was looking at characterizing the optic tectum of the fish by analyzing the RNA transcripts produced by cells in that region. The optic tectum is similar to the superior colliculus in mammals- a region important for processing sensory information. It is a region of the brain highly implicated in autism. Alli’s project focused on seeing what genes were expressed in neurons in the optic tectum to understand if the cells were excitatory or inhibitory, if the tectum was mature, and what kinds of neurons existed in different regions. She is now an author on the paper, “Single-Cell RNA Sequencing Characterizes the Molecular Heterogeneity of the Larval Zebrafish Optic Tectum” published in Frontiers in Molecular Neuroscience on February 10th, 2022.

Alli is now a project lead in the Suli lab. As an undergraduate, she is training another undergraduate to test deep brain photoreceptors in the optic tectum. In other studies, her lab uses lasers to activate the neurons of the optic tectum. This emits some confounding light wavelengths which indicates deep brain photoreceptors. With her project, Alli hopes to streamline the science more so that there are less confounding and more clear answers.

While zebrafish became her main research interest, last summer, Alli also took a dive into pharmacology. After a rigorous application process, Alli was accepted into a summer internship program at Vanderbilt University. As a resident of Saratoga Springs, Utah, she was excited to fly from the nest for a bit and try something new in Tennessee. In the pharmacology department, Alli was testing to see if certain proteins were present in human serum and if the ratios of that protein could be used as a marker for cardiovascular disease. After multiple tests, it was clear that there was not enough protein to use as a marker. While she enjoyed her time in the lab, the experience solidified Alli’s passion for her zebrafish and developmental biology.

Alli has a long list of goals to conquer before she graduates in April 2023, relying on her work ethic and enthusiasm for learning. After graduating, Alli plans on applying to MD/PhD programs in Developmental Biology with a medical emphasis in Pediatrics or OB/GYN.