Science becomes a team sport for neuroscience PhD

School of Life Sciences graduate student Michael Holter

Inspired by his baseball hero Lou Gehrig, Michael Holter earned his PhD in neuroscience studying neurodevelopmental disorders. Photo by Michael Holter/ASU


Editor’s note: This is part of a series of profiles for fall 2019 commencement.

Baseball first drew Michael Holter into his science passion.

As a child, he always played baseball, sporting No. 4 on his jersey in honor of his hero Lou Gehrig.

However, he didn’t really understand what happened to Gehrig until he took a neuroscience class as an undergraduate. He became fascinated by neurons and considered studying neurodegenerative diseases, like the one that affected Gehrig. He later discovered that he was more interested in the development of neurons and neurodevelopmental disorders, such as autism spectrum disorder.

Holter followed that passion into graduate school, where he studied autism spectrum disorder in Associate Professor Jason Newbern’s lab. Holter now is graduating from Arizona State University's School of Life Sciences with a PhD in neuroscience.

And that love of team sports followed Holter into his graduate career as well, through the strong graduate community at ASU.

“Perhaps what surprised me the most about graduate school is that the graduate student body here operates as a collective – everyone is always willing to help each other and we are all in it together,” Holter said. “This shifted my perspective of graduate school from a personal success mindset to a team-based approach that I feel will be essential in moving forward with my scientific career.”

Question: What was your “aha” moment, when you realized you wanted to study the field you majored in?

Answer: After taking a couple developmental biology classes, I found that I was truly interested in how the developing embryo makes specific types of neurons and wanted to understand how molecular “blueprints” contribute to the enormous diversity of cell types in the central nervous system. I became passionate about deciphering the cellular origins of complex neurodevelopmental disorders such as autism spectrum disorder, and how specific types of neurons in a brain region called the cerebral cortex contribute to pathology. In the future, I plan to continue this passion in a postdoctoral fellowship and hopefully beyond in an academic research position.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: ASU is the pinnacle of a large-scale teaching university, designed to distribute information to all sorts of audiences. Due to my interest in teaching at the college level in the future, I chose ASU to understand how a large institution operates, while getting the teaching experience I needed to pursue my goal.

Q: Which professor taught you the most important lesson while at ASU?

A: Over my time at ASU I have learned a tremendous amount from a number of different professors and colleagues, all of whom have taught me something different. I don’t think I can single out any one them individually, but perhaps the greatest lesson I learned during my time at ASU is that everyone has different strengths and weaknesses. I’ve met many scientists who are exceptional at many different techniques and fields that I’ve never studied. We can use our strengths to help boost others as well as get help in areas that are not our expertise to build the best possible research experience. 

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?

A: Take the time to do the things you love. You owe it to yourself to be happy, and your personal and work life will benefit tremendously from taking the time to keep yourself healthy, socialize with friends, and be you.

Q: What was your favorite spot on campus, whether for studying, meeting friends or just thinking about life?

A: Though not one specific spot, most of my friends would say that I single-handedly funded some of the Starbucks stores on campus. Having the bookstore and MU Starbucks nearby has been fantastic for meeting up with friends and taking a quick break from the science life.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: I have accepted a postdoctoral position at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor where I will study mechanisms of brain development. I will also be examining the cellular origins of complex neurodevelopmental diseases such as autism spectrum disorder, and investigating normal molecular and cellular processes that are altered by specific autism-linked gene mutations. I’m excited to get started and am grateful for the tremendous support system at ASU that made this possible for me.

After my postdoc, I hope to pursue an avenue as a research scientist/professor at a university and continue to solve complex problems in abnormal brain development and its associated disorders.

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: There are a few things that I would like to do, but I think solving the plastics problem in the world’s oceans as well as other pollution-reversal efforts would be the best option for our collective future. If given $40 million, I would help fund either the research or the cleanup processes necessary to achieve this goal.

Q: Describe some challenges or hurdles you faced while earning your degree, and what you did or what took place to overcome them.

A: I had a relatively smooth graduate school experience, in part due to fantastic mentorship and friends. The greatest difficulty I faced as a graduate student was time. I had a lot of down days that felt unproductive as well as a lot of extremely late nights when things were busy. The best way to overcome the feeling of unproductivity is to be patient and take the time to destress.

Q: What’s something you are most proud of during your time at ASU?

A: The tremendous amount of friendships and family that I have made along the way. ASU has been a fantastic community for me to grow as a scientist and as a person, and I’ll forever be thankful to them for the love and support they have shown me.

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