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PhD candidate Devyn Oliver named Ruth L. Kirschstein Fellow

Prestigious NIH award funds mentored research training for promising predoctoral students

By Megan Bard

UMass Medical School Communications

February 27, 2018
  Devyn Blair Oliver, 4th year PhD candidate
  Devyn Blair Oliver, 4th-year PhD candidate

Devyn Oliver, a PhD candidate in the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences, has received the prestigious Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Award Individual Predoctoral Fellowship from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. Oliver, in her fourth year at the GSBS, is exploring genes involved in the formation and maintenance of neuronal synapses in the laboratory of Michael M. Francis, PhD, associate professor of neurobiology.

“Ultimately, Devyn's work will advance our understanding of how connections between neurons in the brain are formed, and perhaps identify new potential targets for therapeutic approaches directed towards the treatment of neurodevelopment disorders in which these connections are formed improperly,” Dr. Francis said.

The Kirschstein award enables promising predoctoral students who demonstrate the potential to develop into productive, independent research scientists, to obtain mentored research training while conducting dissertation research. The three-year, $86,000 award will support Oliver’s doctoral research using the nematode C. elegans to understand how the structure of synapses is established during nervous system development and maintained throughout adult life.

In the lab, Oliver has pushed forward the investigation of synapse ultrastructure using electron microscopy, a new area of investigation for the laboratory, according to Francis. She is utilizing a special technique called high-pressure freeze fixation, which provides a better way to preserve the worm for high resolution imaging during research projects. She hopes to use the award to strengthen her collaboration with the lab of David H. Hall, PhD, professor at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York. She is working with Dr. Hall’s lab to improve her ability to apply the freeze fixation technique to her research.

“By working with the Hall lab, I hope to learn more about the technique and establish similar research capabilities in the core here at UMass,” she said.

The award represents dedicated stipend support that will allow Oliver to work more independently. It also offers valuable opportunities to present her work at national and international conferences. Oliver said she hopes to publish her first paper on analyzing the genetics of dendritic spine development and maintenance at neuronal synapses in vivo this summer.

Oliver is a Massachusetts native who earned a bachelor’s degree in neuroscience and behavior at Assumption College in 2014 before joining the GSBS. She is co-president of the Graduate Student Body Committee.

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