Shedding light on Rider graduate

Tara LeGates, class of 2007, went on to become a published research scientist, studying circadian rhythms and the effects of light.


By Alyssa Naimoli

For many, the idea of working in a lab or conducting research as a scientist may seem outlandish. But Tara LeGates ’07 put her Rider education to use in order to become a well-respected research scientist. LeGates is a Rider alumna with a bachelor’s degree in behavioral neuroscience.

Rider gave LeGates the foundation of her scientific career by teaching her to think critically and communicate effectively. She says that Rider gave her the base knowledge she needed to realize and pursue her goals.

“I was very fortunate to have the opportunity to conduct research in Dr. Todd Weber’s lab,” LeGates said. “I studied circadian rhythms in different inbred mouse lines. Specifically, I examined the ability of these mice to adjust their circadian rhythms to changes in the light environment.”

Circadian rhythms relate to the 24-hour cycle of behaviors, such as sleep.

This research earned LeGates the biology award at Rider. The classes, professors and school environment then turned out to be an ideal starting point for her.

“Conducting research in Weber’s lab had a huge impact on me,” LeGates said. “It was my first exposure to the excitement of science and the reason I decided to pursue my research and go to graduate school.”

Rider gave her the knowledge she needed to follow her career path, but it also gave her the skills and the characteristics that she needed to become a successful scientist. Her years at Rider taught her how to think “on her feet” and “out of the box.”

“This has helped me formulate interesting research questions, pull in ideas or techniques from other fields, and assess findings,” she said.

The most valuable thing she learned at Rider was how to truly think like a scientist and analyze what was in front of her.

“I walked into Weber’s lab with no experience,” LeGates said. “He pushed me to think critically, plan and perform experiments carefully, and always keep good notes. He encouraged me to be independent.”

The experiments she conducted in the lab allowed her to gain experience in her field and prepared her for the real world.

“By the time I graduated, I was a fairly independent scientist,” she said. “I even had my first experiences mentoring other students, which was how I came to realize the career path I wanted to take.”

The difficulty and hard work she had faced at graduate school paid off. LeGates has received the Weintraub Award and the Excellence in Research Award from the Society for Research in Biological Rhythms. Also, her graduate thesis work, which centered around circadian rhythms and light-dependent regulation of behavior, was published in Nature, an international trade journal.

“Getting published in Nature was so exciting,” LeGates said. “I had worked so hard and put so much time and energy into it, that I was overjoyed when they finally officially accepted it.”

In the Rider Magazine in the spring of 2013, Weber expressed his excitement for LeGates’ accomplishments in the science field.

Nature is one of the two premier journals in the world, with the other being Science,” Weber said. “It’s been very satisfying to see Tara realize her ability and succeed in graduate school.”

LeGates continued her academic career at Johns Hopkins University where she conducted her Ph.D. research in Dr. Samer Hattar’s laboratory.

Much of her research while attending Rider and graduate school has revolved around how light in the environment affects mood and cognitive thinking and how cells are responsible for conveying this light input.

“We found that disruptive light conditions can induce increased depression-related behavior and deficits in learning and memory,” LeGates said. “We also identified the cells in the eye responsible for conveying this light information to the brain to mediate these functions.”

Following her research at Johns Hopkins, she defended her thesis in June and is currently a post-doctoral fellow in Dr. Scott Thompson’s laboratory at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, where she is studying the mechanism and circuitry underlying depression and antidepressant responses.

LeGates hopes to eventually open her own laboratory where she can mentor students and ignite their interest in science, just as the biology faculty at Rider did for her.

All of her memories and knowledge have urged her to pursue her dreams, and made her realize just how much she wanted them. She knew that once she set her sights on her goals, she could achieve them.

“It’s all about perseverance and self-motivation,” LeGates said.

She encourages all future scientists to keep the motivation to push a project forward and pursue their goals.

“Experiments will fail, papers will get rejected, and a grant might not get funded, but those are chances for you to learn and make your project better,” LeGates said. “Someone said that to me after my paper was rejected. I thought she was full of it at the time, but she was right. You put in more effort with your new-found knowledge and things will start coming together; you’ll figure out the experiment, get the paper accepted, and the grant funded.”


Printed in the 10/30/13 edition.

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