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Promising undergrad researcher fast tracks to PhD program

June 06, 2016
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By Diane Luckow

Alexa Nelson knew in high school that she wanted a career in cellular research, but discovered a second passion during her undergraduate years at SFU—teaching.

Now, she has her career sights set on becoming a professor and establishing her own research lab.

She’s already well on her way. After completing a bachelor of science last summer, she bypassed a master’s program and is now pursuing a PhD in neuroscience at UBC.

Her exceptional SFU cumulative grade point average (CGPA) of 4.28 out of a possible 4.33, coupled with her strong research training, ensured her fast track to the PhD program.

Her academic prowess has  earned her a Governor-General’s Silver Medal for achieving one of the highest CGPAs among all SFU undergrads. She’ll accept the medal at this June’s convocation.

She also received a graduate scholarship from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, and a four-year doctoral fellowship from UBC.

At SFU, Nelson completed three undergraduate research courses, an independent study/research semester, and a research semester funded with an Undergraduate Student Research Award from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council.

Working in professor Gordon Rintoul’s lab, she studied a mitochondrial disease in primary human cells. For her PhD dissertation she is continuing to study mitochondria by looking at mitochondrial calcium signaling, which is involved in cellular death, communication between neurons, and cellular energy.

By studying the fundamental science underlying cells, she hopes to make new discoveries about the brain that could eventually contribute to battling diseases such as Alzheimer’s.

“The brain is among one of the least-understood systems,” she says. “I gravitated towards that because there’s lots to learn.”

Not surprisingly, Nelson devoted most of her time to studying in order to power through her degree in four years while maintaining stellar grades.

“It took a lot of self-motivation and devotion,” she admits, “but the resources were there. Everything at SFU is set up for student success.”

In the midst of her degree program she did find time to tutor Surrey students in Grades one through university, a job she acquired through SFU’s Work Integrated Learning department.

That’s when she discovered a love of teaching and began to consider a career in academia.

“As valuable as the academic knowledge I’ve gained at SFU is, I’ve also learned the importance of collaboration with colleagues, students, and the public. I hope in the future to not only contribute to our understanding of cells and the brain, but to also share and teach what we are learning.”