Providence College grad earns prestigious NSF award

‘My research experience was something I would not trade for anything else in the world.’ — Jennifer Lynn Cyr

Jennifer Lynn Cyr at University of Georgia
Jennifer Lynn Cyr | Courtesy photo

The National Science Foundation received nearly 17,000 applications for the 2016 Graduate Research Fellowship Program.

When the 5 a.m. email recently landed in her inbox, announcing the 2,000 successful candidates, Jennifer Lynn Cyr, a 2015 Providence College graduate, says she was shocked to find she made the cut for the prestigious award.

“Let’s just say I normally have a hard time getting out of bed quickly,” recalls Cyr, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Georgia, “but, I sprang right up that morning.”

Cyr earned her undergraduate degree in biology and now is pursuing her Ph.D. in infectious disease through the the College of Veterinary Medicine. The three-year NSF fellowship carries with it an annual $34,000 stipend and $12,000 cost of education allowance paid to the institution attended by the student. As a graduate assistant, Cyr earns a tuition waiver, so she says the stipend equals a significant raise.

The award means having the freedom to pursue any avenue during her graduate research since most graduate students find themselves constrained by two critical factors: time and funding. The GRFP award alleviates a lot of stress, Cyr says, and opens up opportunities that otherwise would not exist for her.

“I am honored to have been chosen,” says Cyr. “I know there were a lot of applicants, so I hope to be able to show everyone that I am a deserving candidate.”

Undergraduate research

Cyr honed her research skills as an undergraduate in the Providence College lab of Associate Professor Elisabeth Arévalo, a molecular evolutionary biologist, working during the academic year for three years. Arévalo, who wrote a letter of recommendation for Cyr, speaks highly of her former student, saying the “A” student made an impression her freshman year.

She describes Cyr as confident and capable, gaining proficiency quickly enough to work on her own, first on Arévalo’s wasp project — evolution of sociality in paper wasps — and then taking a summer position at the Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory, investigating squid cell biology. She also earned a Rhode Island EPSCoR Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) during the program’s 2014 session.

“I would encourage any student thinking about grad school to participate in both semester-long research and the SURF program, because grad school is like a combination of the two.”

The GRFP award, says Arévalo, speaks volumes both about Cyr and Providence College as does the success of another student, Mary Burak, in Assistant Professor Jonathan Richardson’s lab, also named in the award announcement: “This is huge. It sets a great example and will prove that this fellowship — and others — are ones that any Providence College student is prepared to earn.”

For her 2014 SURF experience, Cyr worked on a research project mentored by Arévalo, investigating phylogenetic ties, or evolutionary relationships, in mysid shrimp species. She then continued to work in the lab her senior year, mostly assisting other students in getting the molecular protocols to run properly.

“My research experience at Providence College was something I would not trade for anything else in the world,” Cyr says. “And, I will be forever indebted to Professor Arévalo — for always being available and for introducing me to ecology. I never would have fallen in love with the fieldwork aspect of biological research if not for her.”

The young scientist says she never considered a research path until she started working in the Arévalo lab, and the experience made her realize how much she enjoyed research. She also knew she wanted to go into the field of animal health.

“I based my decision to go for the Ph.D. on the idea that a clinical veterinarian gets to make a difference to the animals he or she treats directly, but a researcher indirectly impacts animals at a larger scale,” Cyr explains. “It’s like getting to the root of the problem instead of fixing the branches.”

The SURF program also made an indelible mark on Cyr. She says: “I would encourage any student thinking about grad school to participate in both semester-long research and the SURF program, because grad school is like a combination of the two.”

Jennifer Lynn Cyr at Providence College
As a Providence College undergraduate, Jennifer Lynn Cyr earned a Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship in the lab of faculty mentor and RI EPSCoR partner liaison Elisabeth Arévalo. (Photo by Amy Dunkle)

Cyr says the SURF program exposed her to full-time lab work, allowing her to envision what life would be like if she chose the graduate school route, and exposed her to diverse disciplines and techniques. She adds that she also benefitted greatly from being at a small, primarily undergraduate institution (PUI), where the focus trains entirely on undergraduates.

A scientist at heart

Cyr says she always has been drawn to animals and medicine, particularly infectious disease, and sought out a graduate school program that would allow her to incorporate both. That led her to the University of Georgia because its veterinary school includes a Biosafety Level IV containment facility, which will allow her to do research using pathogens that are restricted to facilities with adequate containment. The real novelty, she says, is the ability to do this using a wide array of animal models, from mice to horses.

Her thesis project is built upon her interest in the one health concept, an initiative to promote animal, human, and environmental health through collaborative research. Cyr explains that if a breakthrough in research benefits animals, it benefits humans, too; a lot of human diseases start out as animal diseases or are perpetuated by animal hosts.

She is studying different infection models in African spiny mice, mammals that can regenerate skin — they don’t scar, similar to how lizards can grow back their tails. With an advisor in infectious diseases and ecology, Cyr says she has gained the benefit of an ecologist’s take on her project as well as the opportunity to pursue field studies in the wild to strengthen her experimental approaches in the lab.

“I’m hoping to learn the mechanisms behind this very rare process and discern how certain pathogens affect it in hopes that it will provide some insight into animal and human health,” says Cyr.

Ultimately, she hopes her career path leads to teaching at a small, liberal arts school like Providence College or working in a science museum and connecting with a non-science audience.

Looking back, Cyr says it is hardly surprising that she landed in the science field: “I was meant to be a scientist. My mom can tell you countless stories — me starting ant farms or hatching a thousand moths in the basement, or trying to sneak a dead mouse into show and tell. The list goes on.”

Arévalo foresees a lasting impact, saying she knows Cyr will succeed in her Ph.D., go on to contribute to science and give back to those who follow in her footsteps: “I know she will soon be in academia teaching new generations of biology majors.”

Story by Amy Dunkle | RI NSF EPSCoR