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Nontraditional Path to Science Career

July 18, 2017 | By Anne Kniggendorf

Ethologist Meghan Lockard (SF07) is working toward her PhD and conducting nematode worm research at The Rockefeller University in New York.

Ethologist Meghan Lockard is working a theme: the greatest gifts in her life spring from the gruesome and lowly.

Knee-deep in nematode worm research at Rockefeller University, she’s uncovered a startling idea: the relationships and bonds that humans value most are not exclusive to people at all. One worm’s bond to another isn’t analogous to that of a human’s, but is just the same as one human’s bond to another — minus the consciousness. Without the lowly worm, this discovery might have remained a fascinating idea.

Lockard (SF07) is working in the Bargmann lab, directly under neuroscientist Dr. Cori Bargmann, who’s the president of the science division of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg).

Lockard credits her education at St. John’s College with leading her to the field of science to begin with. However, she credits her most “embarrassing and humiliating moment” with leading her to St. John’s: Following a time of crisis, she was caught plagiarizing in high school.

As a student in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Lockard excelled academically, especially in her English classes. She didn’t simply plan to attend college, but had been awarded a congressional appointment to attend a military academy.

But then she suffered a personal tragedy: she was lifeguarding at a camp pool when a child went into cardiac arrest. She performed CPR for 45 minutes before an ambulance reached the scene. She’d been unable to save him. Afterwards, she struggled to focus on much else.

Lockard failed to read the last book on her summer reading list and, not wanting to take an incomplete, she pulled information she found online about the text and transferred it to her homework journal. The language she used didn’t differ significantly from that of the website, and her teacher charged her with plagiarism.

She lost her accelerated English course and her spot in the National Honors Society. She lost her congressional appointment, as well, and with it her plans for college.

“I really had to confront that I committed what is a mortal academic sin: taking credit for ideas that weren’t your own,” she says. Worse, she was concerned that she might be tempted to take a similar shortcut in the future if she stayed in a traditional, test-oriented academic setting.

“I decided I was looking for the sort of education that was going to cut more deeply and more authentically. That’s about the time I picked up the St. John’s pamphlet,” she explains. She’d never heard of the college.

Over her four years at St. John’s, science captured Lockard’s attention. Her senior paper was on James Clerk Maxwell’s paradigm shift in the conversation physicists were having: it had moved from primarily being about forces to an emphasis on thermodynamics.

But Lockard wanted to make an impact. “Physics is an old, old science,” she says. “To make major contributions you have to be a really exceptional intellect; you have to be like a Richard Feynman. Biology, by comparison, is kind of in its infancy.”

Now, aside from turning science lab bureaucracy on its head, Lockard and Bargmann are striving to understand “how oxytocin acts on a neural circuit to give rise to ritualistic bonding behavior, such as mating,” Lockard says.

Lockard sees the behaviors that come from oxytocin, which is a gene and peptide hormone, as the origin of personality. She says that genetics give us access to behavior — if genes can be manipulated, so can behavior.

Last year, Lockard published some of her findings in the journal Developmental Neurobiology. And, while she’ll only be at Rockefeller until spring of 2018 when she hopes to complete her PhD, she has plans to eventually have her own research lab. She would like to help elevate science to the forefront of our national conversation — she’s already been writing op-eds to that end.

And, when life is gruesome, as it often is, Lockard says she leans on the interior life she cultivated at St. John’s. “Having that place to go really helps me — I don’t know what I would do without it in terms of meeting my daily challenges. That’s the single most way I’m indebted to the education.”