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Building A Scientist

Alex Lombardo '21

Biochemistry and Molecular Biology

Headshot of Alexandra Lombardo '21

Alexandra Lombardo '21

How ‘Brain Power’ Fueled One Scotties’ Path through STEM in the Liberal Arts

It weighs roughly three pounds and is made up of as many cells as there are stars in the Milky Way. It uses 20 percent of the body’s total oxygen and, when awake, generates enough electricity to power a small light bulb.

The human brain, by nature of its complexity, remains one of sciences' biggest mysteries still to this day. But first in this story, came the human heart… 

In 2008, all that seven-year-old Alexandra Lombardo knew was she wanted to be a doctor, a cardiologist, to be exact, and it was “all heart, all the time” in her El Paso, Texas home. But flash forward a little over 10 years later to a working neuroscience research lab on the Agnes Scott College campus, and you’ll find an “Alex” whose undergraduate STEM experiences changed the trajectory of her career aspirations forever. It was there while researching neurodevelopmental disorders such as Rett syndrome and schizophrenia that she was unexpectedly introduced to the mysteriousness of the human brain and developed a passion for conducting medical research.

A self-described learner and an “innate explorer,” Alex found the unknowns within science particularly enticing. “There are so many things we don’t know – about the human body and how it works, about how diseases develop,” Alex said. “There needs to be a group of people passionate about understanding these unknowns, people who are driven and can use the answers to the research questions they’ve asked to ultimately help our community to be in their best state of mind and health to lead their lives. I am certain it is my purpose to be one of those people – a servant to my community by contributing to transformative advancements within biomedical research.”

Alex’s desire to be helpful to her community is indicative of the nature of a Scottie. According to the Science Center for Women, Agnes Scott women believe they have a leadership role to play in health care, in agriculture, in technology, in the medical ethics issues of this century. One-third of students enroll at Agnes Scott intending to major in the sciences, and the liberal arts institution graduates women in STEM at higher rates than other similar institutions (25% versus 10%). 

Though Alex majors in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology on the pre-med track, her research experiences at Agnes Scott have influenced her plans to pursue neuroscience as a graduate student one day. 

It all began during her sophomore year at Agnes Scott when she took a molecular biology course that incorporated an inquiry-based lab under the instruction of associate professor and chair of biology Dr. Jennifer Larimore. This became the first lab course Alex had ever taken that required her to develop her own research project over the course of an entire semester. Dr. Larimore’s own research was incorporated into the inquiry-based lab, and Alex and her two lab mates were tasked with investigating a cellular system that could be altered in Rett syndrome or schizophrenia model systems. Their findings culminated in poster presentations at the college’s Spring Annual Research Conference (SpARC) and the Scotties with Nerves Symposium for which they were awarded runner-up for Best Poster Presentation.

This was the jumping off point for Alex’s newfound love for research, and she decided to apply for the college’s STEM Scholars Program. The STEM Scholars Program, provides full-time summer research experiences to Agnes Scott students in various STEM disciplines. STEM Scholars students are mentored by STEM faculty to conduct cutting-edge research, helping them gain essential skills for STEM scholarship and workforce leadership, while giving them a stronger understanding of how researchers build new knowledge.

For Alex’s summer research experience, she was placed in the Larimore Lab, a cellular neuroscience lab, and mentored by Dr. Larimore, who later asked Alex to be a permanent lab assistant in her working lab.

“While there’s an overall research goal that the lab works toward, each student assistant also has their own independent assays and molecular experiments that they run, analyze and report back to Dr. Larimore on,” Alex said. “Most recently, we helped each other put the data and images into a manuscript, which we then submitted to a peer reviewed science journal. This experience, among others, has been integral in contributing to my professional development and in helping me to understand where my niche is in STEM.”

With Dr. Larimore as a faculty mentor, 100 percent of her mentees get experience presenting their scientific work through poster presentations, and 24 percent have their work published. Mentee names have appeared alongside Dr. Larimore’s in research published in no less than 13 peer reviewed journals such as the Journal of Neuroscience and Frontiers in Genetics. “Our students frequently tell of better understanding their career path based on these experiential moments,” said Dr. Larimore, who is also the co-director of the college’s popular Neuroscience Program. “In addition, coursework at a small liberal arts colleges enhance a STEM student’s ability to think critically and view science in the context of other topics.”

Alex has also benefited from the college’s various resource centers, such as the Resource Center for Math and Science where she sought guidance from tutors, and the Center for Writing & Speaking where her personal statement was reviewed and improved upon. She credits Dr. Molly Embree, Director of STEM Mentored Research, for giving her advice on post-graduate plans and teaching her how to better articulate her research. 

“While the primary focus of STEM Scholars Program is the authentic research experience, another aspect that I emphasize to students is the importance of each person's role in cultivating the community they want to work in,” said Dr. Embree. “Sometimes it takes a while to convince students that STEM Scholars Program is not something provided for them but created by them, by all of us together.  Alex is a natural at creating community, and was from the beginning – it’s something she does everywhere she goes, of her own accord.”

A prime example of this can be seen in the ways in which Alex has taken advantage of the opportunities presented to her to give back to her field, both on campus and off. On campus, as a member of the GEMS Program (Generating Excellence in Math and Science), Alex has been the GEMS STEM Day Director for the last three years. This annual campus event brings 20 girls from underserved high schools in Atlanta to the campus for interactive STEM labs, with the purpose of opening their minds to potential careers in STEM. Alex handles the logistics of the event and acts as the liaison for the college with representatives of the high schools. Alex hopes that exposure to STEM at such a young age will help to increase representation of women in STEM fields.

Off-campus, Alex is the founder of the Triple AAA Program – the Agnes and Arbor Alliance. As a first-year, Alex began volunteering at the Arbor Terrace Assisted Living Center, a seven minute drive from campus, where she would work with elderly patients suffering from dementia, offering activities such as Yoga and brain games. She quickly noticed a shortage of volunteers at the center, which meant less physical and mental activities for the patients. Alex recruited additional STEM Scotties to join her in volunteering at the center every other weekend, officially forming the Triple AAA Program. Together, the team of six do exercises with the patients or pay them individual visits.

“Dementia is an irreversible disease, but it can be slowed with consistent physical and mental exercises,” said Alex. “I wanted to help the center solve the problem of their shortage. It is a small thing, but probably the accomplishment I am most proud of.”

All of Alex’s experiences at Agnes Scott have led her to realize “who she is and what she wants for her future,” which is a career in research. Her final year at Agnes Scott has been spent preparing materials to apply to a competitive post-baccalaureate program with the National Institute of Health (NIH), where she hopes to work as a researcher for two years before matriculating into a dual-degree MD/PHD program. She’s leaning heavily on her SUMMIT 400 Digital Portfolio to give her application materials a unique visual appeal that in turn will give her a leg up on the competition, and words from her portfolio, written during her second year, sum up her journey through STEM at Agnes perfectly, still relevant in this moment…

Agnes has taught me that the journey it takes to reach your goals can be more important than the goals themselves. Learning is a divine and powerful process... Learning at Agnes Scott goes beyond the mental processes; simultaneously, it provides the most difficult challenge and the greatest fulfillment.”

About the writer: Kati Burns Mallows is the Director of Enrollment Marketing at Agnes Scott. When she’s not trying to perform superhuman marketing feats for the Office of Admission while simultaneously drinking copious amounts of coffee, she enjoys writing creative fiction and poetry, and has been a writer for more than 20 years. She especially loves telling the authentic stories of Agnes Scott’s Scottie community.

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