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Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine

Student Q&A: Eileen McIver, Northwestern University’s Interdepartmental Neuroscience (NUIN) PhD program

Eileen McIver

Eileen McIver, a sixth-year student in Northwestern University’s Interdepartmental Neuroscience (NUIN) PhD Program, studies changes in neurons of the subthalamic nucleus, a structure within the basal ganglia that is the primary target of deep brain stimulation to treat patients with Parkinson’s Disease, in the laboratory of Mark Bevan, PhD, professor of Physiology.

McIver earned her undergraduate degree from the Cornell University. She was originally drawn to studying communication in animals, but after being diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis (MS) just before graduating, she decided to shift her focus to brain disease studies.

Where is your hometown?

I grew up in a rural area outside Buffalo, New York. Having spent undergrad in Ithaca, New York, Chicago is my first foray into big city living, but your winters don’t scare me.

What are your research interests?

I spent my undergraduate years studying communication in songbirds and teleost fish, which allowed me to do science and enjoy the great outdoors at the same time. But since being diagnosed with MS following my junior year of college, I just want to vanquish brain diseases. Thus, my graduate thesis is driven by my desire to understand neurological disease processes and develop targeted therapeutics to improve the quality of life for patients and their families. Unfortunately, that means I now work in a lab with no windows.

What exciting projects are you working on?

My current research aims to expand our understanding of Parkinson’s disease (PD) pathology. PD is a disease of the basal ganglia resulting from the degeneration of dopaminergic neurons and is hallmarked by motor symptoms of akinesia and tremor. I use a mouse model of PD to study changes in neurons of the subthalamic nucleus (STN), a structure within the basal ganglia that is the primary target of deep brain stimulation to treat PD in humans. In the absence of synaptic input, healthy mouse STN neurons fire autonomously at a regular rate between 5 and 20 Hz. I have found that in PD mice, these neurons experience an NMDA receptor-mediated increase in the activity of a potassium channel that leads to the disruption or cessation of their normal autonomous activity. I hypothesize that this loss of autonomous firing makes the STN and its downstream targets more susceptible to entrainment by synchronous activity patterns that are associated with motor deficits in patients. Therefore, I predicted that the restoration of their activity would be behaviorally therapeutic. I employed virally-expressed Designer Receptors Exclusively Activated by Designer Drugs—or DREADDs, for short—to successfully rescue intrinsic firing in STN neurons, and indeed saw a normalization of motor behavior in PD mice within ten minutes of DREADD activation. I certainly find this result exciting, and hope to see this line of research help human patients in the future 

What attracted you to the PhD program? 

My family is enthusiastically and incurably academic, so earning a PhD has always been the default path for me, though I am the first to go the biology route. The NUIN program attracted me with its abundance of faculty in a wide range of fields and the opportunity to do translational research in the context of a prestigious medical campus. Another significant attractant was Chicago’s food scene.

What has been your best experience at Feinberg?

One hears a lot of horror stories about thesis advisers or lab mates that can make graduate school a nightmare. But the lab I joined has provided both an attentive mentor who has shared his expertise in a vast array of techniques and skills and a group of coworkers who are not only conscientious lab mates, but some of my closest friends as well. I count myself very lucky to be a part of such a lab.

How would you describe the faculty at Feinberg?

All my mentors among the basic science faculty here have been tremendously supportive and instructive. They strive to do the highest quality science on the cutting edge of this rapidly developing field. It’s an exciting place to be.

What do you do in your free time?

I occasionally go on skiing or backpacking trips and play bluegrass music with friends when I can, but I spend most of my free time honing skills for my back-up career in the circus at the Trapeze School New York in Chicago.

What are your plans for after graduation?

I will likely pursue post-doctoral training to learn additional advanced techniques in order to better equip me to explore pathophysiology in the brain. Otherwise: circus.

Connect with Eileen on LinkedIn