James McKay BLaST Scientist of the Month for January, 2021

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By Amy Topkok

University of Alaska, Fairbanks (UAF) senior James McKay has been a BLaST Undergraduate Research Experience (URE) trainee since the summer of 2018. McKay is pursuing a double degree in biological sciences and physics at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Born in Arizona, he grew up in Valdez, Alaska. He hopes to become a professor or work in the research industry one day. 

McKay is mentored by UAF faculty, Maegan Weltzin, Ph.D., of the department of chemistry and biochemistry, and Renate Wackerbauer, Ph.D., a professor of theoretical and mathematical physics. McKay’s mentors also include graduate students Sarah Suarez and Tyler Smith in Weltzin’s lab. In a recent interview, McKay shared that he values the mentorship he received so far throughout his undergraduate career. He has learned new techniques in molecular biology and electrophysiology in the lab and developed his skills in grants management. He sees the URE award as mini-grants. “The BLaST URE experience helped me understand how to write a research proposal with a budget, how to run a project and how to look up costs for resources.” 

He shared further, “BLaST has allowed me to become a proud member of the scientific community. By allowing me to pursue my passion for research, BLaST has connected me with like-minded individuals with a curiosity for the natural world. In addition, BLaST has provided an environment in which to practice the skills, both in and out of the lab, which contribute to my abilities to perform research.”

McKay also credits his passion for research to his upbringing and his father’s profession in special education. “My dad was a special education teacher, so I was exposed to a wide variety of neuro-atypical students that he worked with, and that is how I got interested in neuroscience. While my work currently focuses on the molecular basis for sleep related epilepsy, the skills I’ve learned are applicable to research into other neurological conditions.”

McKay’s research is double-fold as he is working on two capstone projects. His biology capstone is titled, “Examination of nocturnal frontal lobe epilepsy associated mutations in subtypes of neuronal nicotinic acetylcholine receptors,” and his physics capstone is titled, “Computational Modeling of Wild-type and Sleep Related Hyper-motor Epilepsy Associated Nicotinic Acetylcholine Receptors Using Single-Channel Patch Clamp Electrophysiology.”

“The unique conditions at UAF have allowed me to be a part of the scientific process, from setting up equipment to publishing a paper. Seeing this process from start to finish doesn’t really happen when you are an undergraduate at other universities or in other programs. I’ve been lucky that I have the opportunity to finish a project before I graduate and have been able to present my findings,” McKay said. He presented his research at several UAF Undergraduate Research and Scholarly Activity Research Days, Alaska IDeA Network of Biomedical Research Excellence program retreats, and the 2019 Annual Society for Neuroscience Conference held in Chicago, Illinois.

The Diversity Program Consortium Coordination and Evaluation Center at UCLA is supported by Office of the Director of the National Institutes of Health / National Institutes of General Medical Sciences under award number U54GM119024.
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