Research agenda

Research agenda

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Erica Avery is bound for Johns Hopkins…and a Ph.D. in cellular and molecular physiology

Bachelor’s degree in biochemistry, magna cum laude? Check.

Executive board position with the Rowan University chapter of the American Chemical Society and the Thomas N. Bantivoglio Honors Program? Check.

Editor and columnist for the student newspaper? Check.

Outstanding Senior Award for Biochemistry? Check.

Princeton University Summer Undergraduate Research Program position in molecular biology and a poster presentation before a Nobel Prize winner? Check.

Full ride to the doctoral program to study cellular and molecular physiology at Johns Hopkins University—one of the world’s premier research institutions? Check.

But ask Erica Avery what she’s most proud of in her Rowan undergraduate career and she’ll give you an answer that has nothing to do with her extraordinarily full, extraordinarily impressive resume.

“I found my family,” she says.

And to Avery, 21, that has made all the difference.

In her freshman year, Avery was diagnosed with fibromyalgia, a neurological disorder that causes chronic pain and fatigue, as well as sleep disorders and memory problems. Some days, the pain was so unbearable that she could barely move. She wasn’t sure she’d ever make it through her studies. She struggled with anxiety and depression.

“I thought it was going to destroy my life,” she says. “I was scared.”

Slowly, after some trial and error, Avery found a medication regime that helped, though the condition is something she struggles with every hour of every day.

“I was mad at my body. I felt betrayed,” Avery says, admitting that there are days that her pain is excruciating. “At the same time, I tried to do the best with what I had.”

A support network

Avery found a support network when she joined The Whit, Rowan’s student newspaper. She held a number of positons at the paper, including managing editor and columnist. It’s work, she says, that feeds her soul.

“At The Whit, everyone was quirky. We had a lot of late nights. It was a team effort every week. Working there gave me purpose,” says Avery, who earned her bachelor’s degree from Rowan’s College of Science & Mathematics on Tuesday, May 10.

Telling stories in The Whit was exhilarating and therapeutic, says the Whitehouse Station resident, a 2012 Hunterdon Central High School graduate.

“I fell in love with it. It spoke to me. I got to see other people’s stories and share in a human moment with them,” says Avery, who wrote a science column, “Periodic Trends,” for The Whit.

Other strong relationships—in the Honors program, in Biological Sciences Professor Mark Hickman’s research lab—soon followed. With that, her academic career skyrocketed.

“I started to manage what I was going through. And I started meeting really good people who cared about me. We invested in each other.

“The Honors concentration is like a family, very tight knit. I began to realize I could get my life back together,” says Avery, who is special events and volunteer service co-coordinator for the Honors Student Organization. Additionally, she founded the BantivogliTones, an Honors singing group. This spring, she organized a cabaret for Honors students.

At home in the research lab

In the summer after her sophomore year, Avery began conducting research in Hickman’s lab. Her work in molecular biology and genetics—especially carrying out polymerase chain reaction experiments to study DNA sequence—has been exemplary, Hickman says.

“She’s done a lot of cool things—very advanced stuff,” says Hickman.  “She’s designing PCR primers, as well as conducting experiments in the lab. She deleted genes, which is not typical for an undergraduate to do.”

Last summer, Avery was one of eight visiting students nationwide selected for the highly competitive Research Experience for Undergraduates Program in molecular biology at Princeton. There, along with 80 Princeton undergraduates, Avery spent three months conducting research on the role of certain cellular proteins, known as histones, in the genetics and development of embryos.

At Princeton’s Lewis-Sigler Institute, she worked under Amanda Amodeo, who studies embryonic cellular decision making. Avery also presented her research poster to Eric Weischaus, a developmental biologist at Princeton, who won the 1995 Nobel Prize for his embryotic research.

“He was so humble. And he loves what he does,” says Avery, adding that Amodeo was a stellar teacher. “She is brilliant. We really connected.”

Heading to Hopkins

As she moves on to the doctoral program at Johns Hopkins—the nation’s very first research university—Avery is excited to have the same types of research opportunities. Avery interviewed at Yale, Rutgers, and Stony Brook before deciding on Hopkins.

“When you hear about biomedical research, you think of Hopkins,” says Avery. “I wanted to be in an environment where we’re working together and building each other up.”

She’s eager to teach as well.

“I love sharing the beauty of what we do,” she says.

 “She inherently likes science and she’s become a leader in the lab, training some of the newer students,” says Hickman.

Recipient of the Dean’s Outstanding Senior Award for Biochemistry, Avery has received a host of awards--for her research, her academics and for her journalism. She only briefly considered medical school before deciding on a doctorate and a career in research. That will give her the opportunity to address diseases such as hers, she says, noting that it took months for her doctors to diagnose her fibromyalgia.

“Being a doctor is not the best way for me to use my knowledge and skills,” says Avery, who is on the executive board of Rowan’s chapter of the American Chemical Society. “I know what it’s like to need answers.

“I’m thankful for what I’ve learned from having fibromyalgia and for the people I’ve met. Illness is a journey. I will never be cured. But along the way I keep healing and learning and growing.”

Admittedly “science brained,”—“My whole life, it’s always been about science,” she says—Avery is proud that she explored all of her interests, including writing and the arts, at Rowan.

“Narrowing yourself to one thing is kind of cheating yourself of life experiences,” she says. “College is different than high school. There are more opportunities. You can create events and ideas and have them come to life. I’m so glad I had that opportunity.”