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Miami senior Alexa Pohl earns prestigious international doctoral award

04/18/2012

Alexa Pohl
Miami University senior Alexa Pohl, a zoology major and molecular biology minor, is one of only two students internationally to receive the Krishnan-Ang Studentship from Trinity College, University of Cambridge, U.K. The studentship is granted to exceptional overseas students in the natural sciences who have been accepted to the University of Cambridge to pursue research for a doctoral degree. It provides full funding (tuition, fees, a stipend and travel costs) for three years of doctoral study.

Pohl will pursue a doctorate in psychiatry (neuroendocrinology) at the University of Cambridge's Autism Research Centre (ARC) under ARC director and professor Simon Baron-Cohen. “Tentatively, my research will aim to investigate whether or not there is any evidence for the involvement of the sex steroid hormones in the pathology of autism,” Pohl said.

“Alexa’s acceptance to Trinity College at the University of Cambridge is impressive not just because it is one of the premier universities in the world, but Trinity is the most prestigious of the university’s 31 colleges. Also, Trinity’s neuroscience faculty is internationally renowned for its clinical studies of human neurological pathologies,” said Doug Meikle, chair and professor of zoology.

Undergraduate research with David Berg, professor of zoology:

Pohl has conducted undergraduate research with faculty mentor David Berg, professor of zoology, since the beginning of her first year at Miami. She worked with Berg in the summer of 2010, and received a College of Arts and Science Dean's Scholarship for research in 2010-2011. In the summer of 2009, she received a Research Experiences for Undergraduates fellowship to work with Berg and Makiri Sei, former postdoctoral fellow in zoology, on their National Science Foundation research grant examining biodiversity of invertebrates that inhabit springs in the Chihuahuan Desert.

Her project “has been a complete survey of the genetic diversity of populations of the flatworm, Dugesia tigrina throughout western Texas and eastern New Mexico,” Pohl said.

“The survey involved 11 populations, and I sequenced two genes (the mitochondrial cytochrome oxidase subunit I and the nuclear 18S rRNA genes) in each individual.

Results from my work are consistent with the evolutionary patterns seen in other taxa (particularly amphipods) that have also been completed by our lab. Additionally, it's highly likely that my work has resulted in the identification of two novel cryptic species of flatworms.”

“Alexa combines intellectual curiosity with a strong drive to answer basic research questions and then apply those answers to solving problems,” Berg said. “This combination served her well in her research at Miami, where she used molecular genetics to address questions regarding invertebrate conservation. It will continue to serve her well as she applies similar genetic tools to learn more about autism, a condition that is of great interest in medicine.”

University of Cambridge

Pohl studied at the University of Cambridge in spring 2011 through the Cambridge Junior Fellows program in biological anthropology, which is organized by Miami's department of anthropology and honors program with the University of Cambridge division of biological anthropology. She also volunteered last summer at the Center for Autism and Dyslexia in her hometown of Lima.

Bill McGrew, professor of evolutionary primatology at the University of Cambridge and Miami adjunct professor of anthropology, was Pohl’s director of studies in archaeology and anthropology at Cambridge and got to know her well.

“During that period, she made the contacts that eventually led to this award. The Krishnan-Ang award is highly competitive,” McGrew said. “In many ways, it is more highly prized than the more numerous and better-known national awards, such as the Rhodes or Gates.”

David Berg, professor of zoology

Research in my lab focuses on the evolution and conservation of biodiversity.

Undergraduates, graduate students, and postdocs investigate forces responsible for creating and maintaining genetic and community diversity of invertebrates in freshwater ecosystems.

Our study organisms include invertebrates inhabiting springs in the Chihuahuan Desert of west Texas and southeastern New Mexico, and freshwater mussels (the most imperiled group of animals in the United States) from throughout North America.

Because freshwater ecosystems are threatened by climate change and other human-caused alterations, our research has important applications for the conservation of endangered species in these ecosystems.

Left to right: Brian Lang (collaborator, New Mexico Department of Game and Fish), Alexa Pohl and David Berg

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