Conventional wisdom likes to reserve a particular path for talented scholars like Katie Joa ’12, toward the kind of job that draws ready accolades and gets the glamour treatment from 10 o’clock television dramas. But a funny thing happened to Joa on the way to her dream of becoming a neurosurgeon: A group of lab rats — the literal kind — stole her heart.

From the moment she began looking at colleges, Joa, a Carolina Covenant Scholar from Cary, was so clear about going to medical school — a goal that spoke to her lifelong interest in the brain’s mysteries — that she took the unusual step for a freshman of requesting a laboratory spot at UNC’s neuroscience center for her work-study program. Soon after arriving in Chapel Hill, she set about investigating glial cell migration, crucial work for schizophrenia and other neurological disorders.

The research, though interesting, wasn’t dynamic enough for Joa, who moonlights as a jazz and hip-hop performer and choreographer with the campus dance group Blank Canvas. In the biology-focused lab, it was cells in a Petri dish; it was quiet, and everyone did their own thing.

“I love interacting with others,” said Joa. “And I didn’t get that from that lab. I figured that was just how research was.”

But as a junior, she began work in a clinical research lab investigating eating disorders, where the boundless curiosity she had carried with her since childhood mixed perfectly with her extroverted self. The lab was full of collaborative souls who seemed to revel in answering questions in the field of behavioral medical science as much as she did. There among the beakers and the binge-eating rats she and her cohorts studied, she fell in love with the idea of a career in neurological research.

“Coming out of high school, people always say to you, ‘You can be a doctor or you can be a lawyer or you can have a career in business,’ ” said Joa. “They don’t tell you research is an option as a career.”

Last spring, Joa applied for and won the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Future Scientists and Clinicians Fellowship, a $10,000 award that enables undergraduates to embark on a full-time research project over the course of two summers under the guidance of mentors and faculty.

She completed her first summer studying sucrose addiction in rats in 2011, a project she will continue this summer.

“I just loved that so much, being able to spend all day, five days a week, in the lab,” said Joa, who plans to take a year off from her studies following graduation to work full time in medical research and save money for an eventual doctoral program in behavioral neuroscience. “It’s where I’m happiest. It doesn’t feel like work to me.”

Ultimately, she wants to return to a college campus as a professor, mentor and self-appointed spokesperson for lab rats everywhere, letting undergraduates know that research can be every bit as dramatic and fulfilling as seeing an M.D. behind your name.

“I’d like to push research opportunities a little earlier in college,” Joa said. “Sometimes when you find out as a junior or a senior that you enjoy it, it’s a little late for you to get involved. I really just want to teach kids that you need to try all these different options out, because you don’t know what’s really going to make you happy.”

Copyright 2012 UNC General Alumni Association

from the July/August 2012 issue of the Carolina Alumni Review