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Spotlight on: Cassandra VanDunk, Northwestern Postdoctoral Fellow and Founding Member of NUPF

Modified: December 5, 2014

Cassandra VanDunk is passionate about science, both in her work as a postdoctoral fellow in Professor David McLean’s neurobiology lab, and outside the lab, where she is an involved member of Northwestern’s postdoc community, as well as a mentor for middle-school students through Northwestern’s Science Club.

“As a postdoc at Northwestern, I’ve tried to enhance the scientific community, reaching out and making connections and trying to strengthen the communities that give rise to the science, both in my work with the greater postdoctoral groups, advocating for career development and education opportunities for postdocs, and my mentoring of young scientists,” Cassandra says. “I think that this stage of my life, while being at Northwestern, has been focused not only on doing good science – I love science and I’ve been doing great work here – but helping the community that gives rise to science, both at Northwestern and in greater Chicago, and really strengthening and supporting that network and what that network will give rise to.”

Cassandra’s passion for science comes through when she discusses her research, which focuses on the development of neural circuits that underlie patterned motor behavior in zebrafish. “The zebrafish is a really amazing model system for understanding development of circuits for many reasons, one being they’re completely transparent early on, which means that you can use genetic tools to label single cells in populations, and literally be able to watch them grow and change over time without disrupting the system,” she explains.

Cassandra came to Dr. McLean’s lab after studying circadian rhythms (the daily sleep and wake cycle) as a graduate student at Washington University in St. Louis. “I’ve always been fascinated with the development of rhythmic systems,” she says. “I really enjoyed what I was working on, but I wanted to work with a preparation where I could actually look at the development of a system in an intact animal, and zebrafish was a good way to ask very specific questions.”

In addition to her work in the lab, Cassandra is very involved in, as she says, “really all things postdoc at Northwestern.” She is the recipient of the Postdoctoral Service Award and a founding member of the Northwestern University Postdoctoral Forum (NUPF), which she describes as “a forum for postdocs throughout Northwestern to be able to meet and exchange ideas, providing career development opportunities for postdocs, and a platform where we can meet figure out what our needs are, and begin to address those needs.”

NUPF is a forum for postdoctoral fellows across Northwestern, in all disciplines and all schools. Cassandra is also a co-chair of the Northwestern University Interdepartmental Neuroscience (NUIN) postdoctoral affairs committee, which works to connect NUIN postdocs on both the Evanston and Chicago campuses and facilitate communication among all members of the NUIN community.

“I think that having postdoctoral associations on both levels is very important,” Cassandra says, “because sometimes you need specific career advice that’s tailored toward your discipline, sometimes generalized information is not exactly what you need to move on, for particularly CV and resume building.”

Cassandra also works frequently with Jennifer Hobbs, senior director of TGS’s Office of Training Grant Support and Postdoctoral Affairs (OPA), contacting her whenever she thinks of an idea that could solve a problem for the Northwestern postdoctoral community. “I think that’s the best policy, if you find something that’s not working, to try to do something to change it, because it’s not just going to be affecting you, it’s going to be affecting everyone.”

Cassandra combines her interests in science and building communities through her work with Science Club, a collaboration between the University and the Boys & Girls Club of Chicago that pairs Northwestern scientists with middle-school students. “The idea is to have a continued mentoring experience; not only are we teaching them science weekly, but we stay with the same group of kids for at least three quarters to really be able to build a strong mentoring relationship. Every quarter there’s a theme that we’re trying to teach them, but it’s not just teaching, it’s having fun and interacting and trying to get them to learn the basic principles of how to ask questions about the world, and how to set up scientific questions.”

Cassandra starting working with Science Club as a way to give back to the scientific community. “I feel like it’s really important to use the skills that we gain as scientists to give back. All of us have a large range of skills that we’ve gained, and we don’t always use them to their fullest. When you are excited about science yourself, it’s nice to try to get other people really excited about science as well. It’s also a nice change of pace from the daily struggles of the bench.”

Working with Science Club is also a way to reinforce the importance of basic science, a cause about which Cassandra is passionate. She illustrates with an example: “A lot of focus in society is on disease mechanisms, which is very important, but all of the details that we learn from basic science are applicable and necessary for work on disease or anything disease-related.” She adds, “I don’t think society always understands the necessity of basic science.” In her work as a postdoc, her involvement in Northwestern’s postdoctoral community, and her mentorship of future scientists, Cassandra is doing everything she can to promote the importance of science.