Under the Lens: Alena Kozlova

“As long as you are excited about what you do, you will do great.”

“As long as you are excited about what you do, you will do great.”


Alena is an international student from Moscow State University. She arrived in Chicago to figure out if graduate school was the path she should follow. She dove into a research assistantship in microbiology at the University of Chicago for 2.5 years, studying mouse mammary tumor virus. There she became familiar with the academic culture and molecular techniques, all while learning English. As a senior graduate student, Alena is just about out the door- and is currently writing manuscripts and her thesis. We talked about her experience at UIC and why she works with tiny transparent worms.

What were you doing 10 years ago today?

I was finishing up Moscow State University in the fourth year. I had to choose if I wanted to do molecular biology or evolution. I chose molecular biology. I was always interested to know what’s going on in a tube -- even though you don’t see it, it’s an amazing world.

 At the end of the summer, I was choosing between labs, trying to figure out what I wanted. The institution is huge there, so you have to find what you like and pick what you want.

Why did you want to be a PhD student?

I was inspired by a conversation I had with my older brother’s friend. Initially I was interested in medical school, however, this friend explained what a PhD science career is like. I didn’t even consider to be a researcher, I never met one, so he drew me to this field. I thought, why not? It’s very interesting when you can do whatever you want. I loved solving puzzles. He inspired me in just one day conversation that just changed my point of view.

How did you decide to come from abroad?

When I got here I found out there there were so many opportunities, you can do whatever you want. Here you get to communicate directly to the head of the lab as opposed to senior scientist in the labs in Russia. Funding is better here also. I wanted to come here and see what I can do. And I liked it!. It blew my mind!

You are one of many international students at UIC. Were there any problems while you tried settling in Chicago?

When I came, I thought the people were so friendly, and willing to help. My first day I was getting my Social Security, and I was alone in the office, and people just quickly helped me. You can ask any question and people will help you. In the lab, it was very hard in the beginning. I knew a little bit of English, but I wasn’t a native speaker. I was catching a few words trying to make a sentence in my head. People would understand me sometimes. Not always. But working 8-10 hours a day, after a few months it got easier, you find a way. It helped a lot also living with my brother. He was very supportive.

Before we talk about your research at UIC, tell us a bit more about yourself, what do you do when you’re not working at the lab bench?

I do a lot! I don’t have enough time for everything that I love to do. I love creative activities. I like to knit. I’m currently learning how to sew. I love to cook and I love to bake -- I prefer baking. I like pies or cakes. You make it sweet and people like it -- it makes people so happy. I like to do different things so that when I go back to the lab the next day I’m ready to do my lab work. I’m refreshed.

 Do you have a favorite TV show?

Not particularly, but I find paranormal activity shows to be interesting. It fascinates me when you can’t explain the unknown.

Is there a place that you frequent in Chicago or any favorite city outings?

I love Millennium Park for their summer music festival! Wednesdays after work I would just take some snacks to the Pritzker Pavilion, sit on the lawn, and enjoy the different music that they play.

Describe your research as if you were describing it to your grandma.

(Chuckles) Well -- specifically it would have to be in Russian, and it would almost be impossible! I’ve never even become familiar with most of the scientific terminology in Russian, all of my research training has been in English.

Right! Of course, well let’s pretend we are speaking to a child, a 7- year- old. How might you get them to understand what you do?

There are many diseases, and some of them affect how people move. People have a hard time walking or lifting, or using their muscles overall. My research is focused on helping these people. To do that I am using an awesome organism, so small you can barely see it. It’s very cute, elegant, not scary at all. They are safe to work with. I would show the 7- year-old this animal, because they would get excited. I would also explain that humans are big; they are very complicated. The smaller organism has less cells and is easier to study because it is relatively simpler. It is easier to manipulate.

Can you describe in a bit more detail, perhaps to an undergraduate senior student?

We want to understand the communication between a particular neuron and a muscle in the nematode roundworm, C. elegans. It is perfect for this study particularly because it is transparent and we can use genetic techniques and combine them with optic techniques.

Optics! I found a video that you posted online, of the C.elegans pharyngeal pump, can I share that?

You did? Oh gosh! How did you find it? I did it for the research imaging competition. They told us to upload it to YouTube and submit the link. This was a year ago.

Can you explain this video to the audience?

Whatever was flashing in the worm, that’s the neuron. The beauty of this optic technique (this a fluorescent protein [GCaMP] is that when it binds calcium it fluoresces. You can express this protein in specific places that you want, like a specific cell. Because C. elegans is transparent, when the cell depolarizes, you see it flash light, meaning it is generating and sending a signal, so you study the cell’s activity in real time. Here, the motor neuron connects to the isthmus muscles of the pharynx. That’s why I love researching on this organism, you see it in the microscope and it just makes your day!

Also, this was the first movie that I made, and actually it was the best one.

Why is your research necessary, and how is it relevant?

People with neurodegenerative diseases have problems with neuronal function. This particular project helps me understand how the neuron functions.

My research is focused on specific muscle contractions called isthmus peristalsis. The main question we want to address is “how does a particular motor neuron, M4, communicate with pharyngeal isthmus muscles to produce these contractions?” To answer this question, I set out to identify the receptors that receive a signal from M4 to stimulate peristalsis. I found that two receptors are involved in stimulating peristaltic contractions, and they play an opposite role in these contractions. Interaction between M4 and isthmus muscles is simple and provides an elegant model to study neuromuscular communication. Loss of neuromuscular communication can lead to many neurodegenerative diseases such as Huntington’s disease and ALS.

What do you love most about being a PhD student?

Freedom! Kind of freedom. You make your own schedule. You choose the lab you want to work in -- well, it’s a mutual decision. You choose your PI, and your PI chooses you. Then you choose your project. So it’s actually freedom that I love the most. “What do you want to do?” [Pete] asks. So I come up with a plan, we chat, and next thing you know: “Let’s go for it!”

Do you have a “best moment” that you’d like to share? An achievement or a specific fun day in the lab?

The best moment was my first lab meeting, finishing my very first lab presentation. I was nervous about it. I thought, oh my God, everybody is so smart. And Aixa and Pete -- they are so great. I just worked so hard to prepare. After I did present, I felt so good. I felt so motivated. Even more relieved than after my prelim. I don’t know why. It’s the moment, the first time that you show everyone your work. You have to defend yourself and answer critical questions. I thought it was super important, and it was the best moment.

What challenges do you think students face in PhD programs?

In terms of techniques, if it’s a new one that nobody has ever done in the lab, it’s a huge challenge. I performed a single cell RNA- seq analysis (intended to gather the changes of gene expression in one specific cell). Although I was successful, in the end, I didn’t have time to go back to the data and fully analyze it. Getting the data was very challenging. You have to work on one cell and figure out every step by yourself. It took me 10 months to complete. I still remember I had to leave lab at 2 or 3 am. It was really late. That was challenging. It was new.

What advice do you have for other PhD students?

Don’t lose your enthusiasm! Love your research! You can always find something that is really cool. As long as you are excited about what you do, you will do great. Also be organized. You will do so many experiments and have a ton of data. Put it in writing right away! I think this is important. 

If you weren’t a PhD student, what would you be doing?

If you ask me right now I wouldn’t, but 10 years ago, I would have gone to medical school if I didn’t pursue research. Right now I would do something totally different if I wasn’t in a PhD program. I am interested in vedic astrology. My ascending sign is Leo. An ascending sign is rising in the sky when you were born.

Describe a Leo; describe yourself.

Usually they have leadership abilities and they are actually really good in science. It’s perfect for me. I cannot do the same thing over and over again. Science is a creative process. So I would be an astrologer and do readings, something creative.

Where do you see yourself in five years? What do you plan to do after your PhD?

This is the most difficult thing to imagine. In the beginning I wanted to stay in research. Have my own lab. Funding is more and more difficult to find, though. If I can do this, find funding, I will try a post-doc and stay in research. I would also consider a position in industry. I would like a new experience. I just want to apply to different places but first talk to people and network.

In April Alena attended the C. elegans Midwest Meeting in Michigan to deliver an outstanding Oral Presentation, "Unexpected and antagonistic functions for the EAT-2 and GAR-3 receptors during pharyngeal muscle peristalsis.” She is looking forward to her winter break to cozy up, bake, and work on her thesis. We’re rooting for you Alena!