Aleksunes, an HHMI predoctoral fellow, is completing her degrees at the University of Connecticut and expects to seek an academic position after school, probably in toxicology. During her studies, she has worked in a community pharmacy, where she enjoyed the daily patient interaction. She has also worked in a Poison Control Center, which she likened to the TV program ER. "You are triaging different types of emergencies over the telephone," she says, "some less serious, like 'my kid ate a poinsettia leaf,' and some more critical, like 'my 16-year-old son just took 50 aspirin.'"
Although pharmacy and emergency work suited her to a point, Aleksunes says she became drawn to research during an undergraduate project in biochemical toxicology at the University of Connecticut. "I thought, 'This is really cool.' You ask a question, think about it in a couple of ways, and design an experiment to answer it," she says. "And I worked for a great toxicologist. His love of science was infectious."
Her research is now focused on acetaminophen (Tylenol) poisoning. "You don't have to take very much for it to be toxic, causing liver damage," she notes. Specifically, she is investigating how the body reacts to toxins while under stress and how certain diseases alter the way the body handles unrelated drugs. Using mice and livers from human transplants, she is looking at the molecular mechanisms for how drugs go in and out of the liver via transport proteins.
Aleksunes traces her interest in science back to childhood. She recalls a video taken by her father one Christmas when she was seven years old. On opening a gift, she discovers a microscope and exclaims, "Now I can finally start doing experiments!"
What has surprised her most in science is the impact students can have on research by sharing their research ideas with their advisers and debating solutions together. "It is gratifying knowing that an idea you came up with on your own actually ends up working and has an impact on how your adviser structures the lab's research program."
As a participant in the Ask a Scientist program, Aleksunes enjoys the creativity evident in many of the questions she receives. "Some people are really on the ball and thinking about scientific issues, asking why things are the way they are," she says.
Aleksunes pursues several hobbies, which she says keep her going through all the inevitable ups and downs of science. Among them is craft work, including quilt making, cross-stitch, needlepoint, crochet, and creating greeting cards. "Crafts make great presents, which is good when you don't have much money as a graduate student," she says.
Author: Cathy Kristiansen