GMS PhD Spotlight: Katie Babcock

Katie Babcock, PhD, is a January 2024 graduate of the PhD program in Anatomy & Neurobiology. Her dissertation research under Professor of Neurology & Pathology Ann McKee at the BU Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) Center focused on changes in astrocytes in the brains of deceased former American football players. Katharine defended her dissertation in November 2023.

Read more about Katie below!

What did you complete your dissertation research on and how did you settle on that topic?

My research focused on how a particular type of brain cells, called astrocytes, changes in the brains of deceased former American football players. I moved to Boston to join Dr. Ann McKee at the BU Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) Center, because I’m passionate about neuroscience and sports. CTE is a neurodegenerative disease associated with repetitive hits to the head, such as those seen in contact sports.

I chose to study astrocytes because they’re the hidden “stars” of the brain. Neurons may be the most well-known brain cells, but astrocytes are crucial for normal brain health, and neurons wouldn’t be able to survive without them. We’re just starting to understand how astrocytes change in response to injury or disease, and how this can impact normal brain function.

Why did you choose to do a PhD?

I’ve always been a curious person, intrigued by the unknown. Neuroscience caught my attention when I first discovered it back in high school because of all the unanswered questions. I decided then that I wanted to become a neuroscientist to help chart uncharted territory. This is exactly what doing a PhD is—an opportunity to make your own contribution to the growing body of scientific knowledge.

How would you describe a typical day as a PhD student?

The answer to this will vary depending on who you ask and what year they are in their program. Typically, the first year is spent taking classes and rotating in different labs to find one you want to do your research in. The second year is busier, with classes, research, and preparing for qualifying exams. Usually after the second year, you’re doing research fulltime. In my program, there was also a teaching requirement, which is usually met by the end of the second or third year. And if you’re like me, you have student clubs and events to organize and participate in as well. So, a typical day as a PhD student will include some or all the above activities.

What is one of your best memories from the time in your PhD?

It’s tough to choose just one memory, since I wore a lot of different hats in graduate school, and thus, had so many different experiences. Some of the most meaningful memories came from my BUtiful Brains outreach work, engaging with members of the public at the Museum of Science to increase their awareness and excitement about brain science. Another was attending the Concussion Legacy Foundation Gala and getting to hear from the families who had loved ones who’d donated their brains for research. It was an honor to meet some of them and hear their stories, and it really drove home what a privilege it is to do this work.

Did you face any unexpected challenges during your time in your program? How did you overcome them?

The COVID pandemic hit right as I was in the middle of my qualifying exams, which are already notoriously one of the most stressful parts of graduate school. Then, two weeks later, my lab shut down [Editor’s note: an unusual occurrence] due to funding shortages and the graduate students had to find new labs. Fortunately, Dr. McKee had funding available, so I switched back to the CTE Center Brain Bank, where I’d previously been employed and done my master’s work. It took some time for me to pivot and figure out a new plan for my dissertation, but I wasn’t shy about reaching out and asking for help when I needed it.

What are your next steps and your plans for your future?

I gave birth to my son a few weeks after defending my dissertation and starting my postdoc. Once my maternity leave ends, I’ll be working to publish two of my thesis chapters while looking for a new job. My hope is to return to my hometown of Washington D.C. and get a job at the NIH or other agency where I can help support scientific research and progress at the federal level.

Is there anyone in your life who inspired your decision to pursue this career path?

I’m continually inspired by the stories I hear and people I meet. It was a cover story of an old National Geographic magazine with a haunting picture of a cerebral angiogram entitled “Quiet Miracles of the Brain” that first caught my eye and got me hooked on neuroscience when I was in high school. Then as a sophomore in college, a molecular biology professor informed me that if I wanted to “explore” the brain, I should pursue a PhD, not medical school (I was pre-med at the time). It was another magazine cover story right after I graduated that introduced me to the devastating disease of CTE and inspired me to pursue this line of research in graduate school. The work of the late and great Ben Barres inspired my fascination with astrocytes. And lastly, my mentor, Dr. McKee, has always been a great role model for how to be a strong leader.

Do you have any advice for future PhD students or anything else you would like to share?

Take advantage of all the different opportunities graduate school has to offer. It’s such a unique time to explore different interests and meet new people. Join (or start) a student club. Volunteer in the community. Say “yes” to new opportunities. And don’t be afraid to get out of your comfort zone! Your future self will thank you.

What do you like to do for fun in Boston?

Walk around. It’s such a walkable city. I especially love the Arnold Arboretum. The rhododendron path and mountain laurels in full bloom in late spring are not to be missed!