Focus on fruit flies found her a fiance

Credit: Julie Kim Khavari and Reuter

Allison Gontang plans to wed former classmate Takaki Komiyama, PhD.

There's more than one way to get attention. One is by being productive and focused, which made Allison Gontang one of the first in her entering class to earn her PhD in neurosciences, just five years after her arrival as a new graduate student in September 2004.

Gontang's thesis research explored the biochemical cues inside developing neurons that determine how their axons (long extensions that conduct electronic signals from one neuron to the next) wind up establishing their connections to targeted downstream neurons. That required taking eyes out of flies, which in turn required a lot of patience and a steady hand, she said. 'Before coming to Stanford, I had become quite good at dissecting fly embryos, which are pretty darned small. I thought the fly eye was going to be easier to deal with, because it's much bigger than the embryo. And I was entirely wrong. Man, it was so hard!'

But the hard work (12-hour days, on average, six or seven days a week, at least for long stretches) paid off. Gontang, 27, discovered two genes newly implicated in these synapse-formation decisions. 'Fruit-fly and human genes are something like 75 percent identical,' she said, 'so the fly can be a great system for studying human development.'

Gontang wins high praise from her thesis advisor, Tom Clandinin, PhD, assistant professor of neurobiology: 'She's a very accomplished experimentalist, and she thinks a lot about what she does. She's highly motivated, incredibly well-organized and very smart.'

As if that recognition wasn't enough, she also got some attention from a fellow grad student. 'I found my future husband here,' she said.

This second example of getting attention partially explains the first (the productivity and focus). Gontang's fiancé, then in the same department, got his PhD right after they started dating and moved to Washington, D.C. - the infamous 'two-body problem,' as it's known in academic circles. 'It was a motivating force for me to get out of here,' said Gontang, who's applied for a fellowship to do research at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in nearby Bethesda, Md.

And then there are Gontang's attention-getting 'wavelength oscillations': Her hair has shifted in length from very long (as it is now) to very short to nonexistent, while its color has phased from black to blue to bleached to its present (natural) dark brown. These variations actually caused a bit of a recognition problem four years ago, when she first told Clandinin she wanted to try working in his lab.

Clandinin already knew Gontang from a class he'd taught during her first year, when her hair was long. Since then, though, she had cut it off and donated it to Locks of Love, an organization that makes wigs for kids with alopecia or undergoing chemotherapy for cancer. 'She came to see me about joining my lab, and she clearly knew me,' Clandinin said. 'But I was struggling to figure out who she was - until I realized it was the hair. It had gone from very, very long to, like, buzz-cut short.'

It wasn't that short, Gontang said. 'It was an inch and a half long. Even when I later shaved my head, I just buzzed it, I never Bic'ed* it.' (*Translation: using a Bic razor to get to scalp level.)

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