Dr. Jenna Lee, on being open to new experiences.

Photo credit: James Santiago

Dr. Jenna Lee, on being open to new experiences.

Interview by Katie Yoest, PhD

Katie Yoest Tell us about your background and what led you to become a postdoc at Michigan State University.

Jenna Lee -My background education is Behavioral Neuroscience and Women’s Studies from Purdue University. It may sound like an odd combination; However, it has profoundly influenced my research interests in sex differences in neurobiology of reward and motivation. In graduate school at University of Missouri I studied how sex and other biological factors influence feeding behavior, specifically related to the brain opioid reward system. Being a bit of an exercise nut myself, these studies incorporated the influence of voluntary wheel running on opioid mediated feeding behavior. Currently, my research examines the neurobiology of integrating external environmental factors with internal metabolic states to influence both the consumption of food as well as metabolism in both male and female animals. I aim to illustrate how learning/conditioning are involved in overconsumption of food as well as metabolic responses such as insulin release immediately following food ingestion. The goal of this research is to explore potential sex-specific therapeutic targets to mitigate metabolic damage associated with obesity and diabetes.

Beyond my research, I currently serve as the chair of the Michigan State PDA Advocacy Subcommittee. This subcommittee aims to create a platform for postdoctorate researchers to voice concerns and promotes postdoctorate representation among MSU policy-making bodies.

What was the reason to choose MSU to do your postdoc? 

I initially interviewed with my current PI at MSU for graduate school but was a bit intimidated by the level of rigor at the laboratory. As I finished my graduate school training, I recognized that such rigor was not something to be intimidated by, but rather a substantial benefit. Interviewing with the laboratory personnel solidified my decision because of the passion demonstrated by both my PI but also the current graduate students. Additionally, I was impressed with the energy, comradery, and importantly the diversity of the Behavioral Neuroscience Department faculty.

How has your experience as a postdoc here been so far?

Like many current postdocs, my experience has been uniquely shaped by the pandemic. Within my first 6 months our laboratory moved buildings (2019). At the time I thought that this was “such a major setback to progress!” Funny how a 2+ year pandemic can put things into perspective. The lack of personnel able to physically work in the laboratory during those next few months meant that I took on several projects that I would have never considered otherwise. While nerve racking at the time, looking back, I am appreciative of that experience.

You’ve been involved in advocating for postdocs at MSU, what do you think are the most important things that can improve the postdoctoral experience here? 

Advocating for Postdoctorates has shifted my perspective about how diverse the postdoc experience can be! We represent all walks of life and come with challenges and triumphs unique as our research backgrounds. Advocating for postdocs requires recognizing the importance of fostering diversity, equity, and inclusion in all aspects of decision making. This also means that to make our unique voices heard, we must be assertive to be involved in campus administration and policy-making bodies.

What is your long-term career plan?

I have not yet decided my career plan. However, my over-arching career goal is to educate the next generation of scientifically literate citizens. At this moment I have yet to decide if this means in at R01 institution as a PI, or at a smaller institution as an instructor of Biological or Psychological Sciences. Additionally, I am also passionate about extension education and outreach and may find a niche for science education in that avenue.

What do you hope to achieve in the next year, in all aspects of life?

I am adventuring into more teaching experience. It is a goal to be an instructor of record for an undergraduate course this spring. Beyond the University, I am hoping to refine my urban gardening skills this year.

What is your advice on how MSU postdocs can get the most out of their experience here?

Step outside of your comfort zone personally and professionally. Given the isolating nature of postdoctorate life, it is challenging to make contacts amongst peers. However, it is those connections that put this demanding role into perspective and make the experiences worthwhile.

To wrap it up, and to know more about you, tell me what comes to mind first in this rapid round of questions!

Favorite food – Chicken and veggies are my daily lunch!

Favorite way to spend a day off – A powerlifting session at the gym

Favorite place you ever visited or lived – Ireland (visiting)

Job you would do if it wasn’t research – Given my love of education it would likely include some aspect of outreach/extension work. I grew up on a farm as a kid and I am still figuring out how to incorporate my rural roots with gardening and chicken farming into city life. Therefore, I would share my perspective and passion through extension education in urban agriculture. Who knows, maybe I would be the local chicken farmer aficionado.