Grad Story #22



 Grad Story #22



Jason Askvig
PhD Student
Anatomy & Cell Biology


Jason is undertaking a PhD in the Department of Anatomy and Cell Biology.

My bachelor’s degree is in Biology. I completed my Master’s degree in Dr John Watt’s lab in 2008 in Anatomy and Cell Biology and since then I have continued my PhD work in Dr. Watt’s lab.


Where are you from originally?

A small town called Des Lacs, North Dakota about 3 hours west of Grand Forks near Minot.


What sparked your interest in sciences, and in particularly, in anatomy or cell biology?

I have always been interested in science. I really enjoyed my first Anatomy class in high school. It got me interested in the medical sciences. I came to UND as biology pre-med major and took undergraduate Anatomy and it was my favorite course as an undergraduate. I also enjoyed being an undergraduate teaching assistant in the Anatomy course and during that I communicated with the Anatomy & Cell Biology graduate students, and that got me interested in applying for the Anatomy & Cell Biology graduate program.


What is it about the program that you most enjoy?

There are a lot of things. One thing that is really unique with our program is that we have a lot of teaching opportunities. We have a human cadaver lab, where we teach undergraduates, graduate students and medical students. The other thing I enjoy is the scientific research. I work in Dr. Watt’s neuroscience lab.


The expertise in your department focuses on cellular biology, developmental biology and neuroscience. Can you talk a little about that?

There is diverse research interest within in our department. We have labs that conduct research on neuronal survival in the brain, on bladder cancer, and on diabetes to name a few. Regardless of the model system that the labs use in their research, cellular biology and anatomical techniques are at the crux of our department’s research. Having a wide range of research opportunities provides our graduate students the opportunity to determine what they want to do and what they most enjoy.


Can you talk about the research you are doing in Dr Watt’s lab?

The long-term goal of our research is to determine how we can promote the main cells of the brain (neurons) to survive following injury. Our lab is interested in a protein called CNTF (ciliary neurotrophic factor) and how it functions to keep neuronal cells alive following injury. If we know how CNTF promotes neuronal survival, then we would be able to manipulate different neuroprotective responses that CNTF may mediate.


How many hours do you think you’d spend in the lab in any given week? It seems very lab intensive.

Yes, it is. I don’t know the exact number, but when I am not teaching I am in the research lab during the week, including hours spent on weekends and nights. Depending on the experiments that I am performing, some days or weeks are much busier than others. You have to be committed as a graduate student, and make the time to run your experiments. Because our department has a prominent teaching obligation, it is a balancing act between teaching, research, and course work.


That’s actually a very good point that you brought in, that every student I have talked to mentioned about learning how to manage everything you need to get done as graduate student? How do you balance all these commitments?

I have always felt that having multiple obligations keeps you more focused because you need to be more efficient. When I am spending 4 hours per week teaching, I have to be very focused in the time I spend in the research lab. It is essential, not only for scientific research but for being a graduate student in general, to be organized. Organization is a trait that will allow a person to succeed in graduate school.


Are you working with closely with other students where you have your own part to play?

Currently in our lab we have 3 graduate students, a laboratory technician, a couple of undergraduate students and a medical student. We all have our own project that is under the umbrella of the lab’s main goal. While each of our projects are slightly different, they do overlap. Because of this, we are constantly in close communication with each other and our advisor. Being in a research lab with this many people has helped me foster communication skills and collaborations.


When you achieve a research goal, do you then ask a new question?

Yes, experimental results usually generate more questions which lead to more experiments.Scientific research is not linear, there are many branching points. This makes research exciting, because the results of preliminary experiments may lead you in a direction that you did not expect to go when the research project was being designed. A research project is constantly evolving, and it allows for some very interesting projects.


As you mentioned there is a lot of expectations on grad students, and part of that is sharing. I believe you presented your research in Scholarly Forum and the Frank Low Research Day? How important are those opportunity to present your work and to articulate you research?

I think is incredibly important. As you mentioned, the Graduate Scholarly Forum is a campus wide graduate research event and Frank Low research day is a research forum focusing on research in both the basic and clinical sciences. I think it is very important part of being a graduate student to present their research at local and national meetings, as it allows you talk about your research as well as allows you to meet people who have similar work or research interests. People from different areas of research think differently and their feedback can be really helpful in your experiment. It’s a very positive experience.


It’s great that you have this opportunity to share your research locally, did you say you’ve gone in to some national meetings as well?

Yes, I go to the Society for Neuroscience and American Society for Neurochemistry meetings held each year. It’s amazing to see the science that is happening, some of these large meetings might have 20,000 posters over the course of 5 days. It can be very overwhelming and encouraging at the same time. There are multiple opportunities to find potential collaborations and receive feedback from other researches at these meetings.


What are some of the challenges you faced, being a graduate student?

Early on as graduate student, one of the challenges was in prioritizing my time toward fulfilling all of my duties. Another challenge was learning to have patience with research, as it can be frustrating. You need to have patience to deal with the frustrating moments when your research does not go as expected.


Where do you see yourself in future?

I would love to be in medical school where I can have my own research lab and teach medical students. When I came in to the Anatomy & Cell Biology program I was more interested in teaching, which was one of the reasons I chose this program as they have multiple teaching opportunities, but while working on my graduate degree, I have developed a passion for research.


Running a lab requires money and grants. Is grant writing something else you have had to learn?

Being in a research lab you quickly understand how important funding is. I’ve seen, with my advisor, the commitment it takes in writing grants.

I took a course at the Medical School that had a large component on the grant writing process. My advisor has also highly recommended that I write grants of my own. I have written a grant for ND EPSCoR through NSF here at UND. And there have been smaller grants available through The Graduate School, such as the Summer Doctoral Fellowship award and the Doctoral Research Fund that allow me to receive money to buy research supplies.

I think it’s incredibly important as PhD. student that you learn the process of grant writing. Most graduate students have opportunities to publish, and that’s expected, but many are not writing grants.


How important is that mentor relationship?

It’s incredibly important. One of the reasons that I chose the specific research lab that I am in is that I get along very well with my advisor. Over the past six years I have developed a very positive relationship with my advisor. This makes life in the research lab much easier because we are both comfortable with communicating with each other.


What advice would you give to a grad student who is considering graduate school in the Anatomy and Cell Biology program?

I would say that having a plan of what type of experience you want to get from graduate school. If you enjoy teaching anatomy and scientific research, then the Anatomy & Cell Biology program will help you prepare for your career.



Susan Caraher



Original Format





Susan Caraher, “ Grad Story #22
 ,” Grad Stories, accessed December 12, 2018,