When one door closes, another opens. For Christine Faunce, the closing door is Virginia Tech, where she has spent four-plus years as student, lab research assistant, resident advisor, volunteer, and advocate.

The opening door? The University of Pennsylvania, where she will pursue a Ph.D. in pharmacology.

As with many college students at Virginia Tech and around the world, the past year has brought challenges for Faunce — uncertainty, classes online rather than in person, opportunities lost, and missed months of not being able to continue her passion of research in a laboratory setting. But it has also brought rewards. Faunce, who is earning dual degrees in experimental neuroscience and medicinal chemistry, won the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation award, and now she has been named the 2021 Outstanding Senior in the College of Science.

“Before beginning the graduate school admissions process, [the pandemic] reinforced my decision to pursue my Ph.D. because I immediately realized how much I missed doing benchwork science,” Faunce said. “I am really excited to be able to merge my interests in chemical biology and psychiatric illness pathophysiology through the research at Penn.”

Her career goal: help provide novel, safe, and more effective therapeutics for psychiatric illnesses.

Faunce was slated to spend the summer of 2020 working inside the lab of Megan Matthews, an assistant professor of chemistry with UPenn’s College of Arts and Sciences. COVID precautions nixed that. Instead, she continued work, albeit virtually, in the lab of Matt Buczynski and Ann Gregus, both assistant professors with the Virginia Tech School of Neuroscience, who research drug addiction and its functional role in neurological disorders.

Faunce also spent many of the past few months performing data analysis or coding animal behavior videos for Buczynski and Gregus, and completing her medicinal chemistry degree in the Department of Chemistry.

Before she heads off to Philadelphia, she will return, in person, to finish several projects involving molecular and behavioral consequences of drug addiction of mice in the Buczynski-Gregus lab.

“I am grateful that Dr. Buczynski is giving me the opportunity to work in the lab for a month after graduation because I truly have missed it,” Faunce added.

After winning the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation award, Buczynski said of Faunce, “Christine is a phenomenal researcher, with an exceptional ability to seamlessly work between disciplines to tackle challenging problems in neuroscience. It’s been a privilege to work alongside someone with her talents, and I look forward to seeing her accomplish great things in the years ahead.”

During her time at Virginia Tech, Faunce found mentors in Buczynski and Gregus, as well as Scott Geller, an Alumni Distinguished Professor in the Department of Psychology’s Center for Applied Behavior Systems, and two of his graduate students, one of whom passed away in 2017. She credits other faculty members and fellow students in the Virginia Tech Honors College as additional inspirations.

“The past five years have not only been about learning neuroscience and chemistry, but also how to stick up for myself as a woman in STEM,” Faunce said. “When I was a sophomore, I serendipitously decided to take organic chemistry — seriously just for fun — and it turned out to be the best decision of my undergraduate curriculum. I became immediately enthralled with the subject and how it could apply to neuroscience, which is why I decided to add a second major of chemistry. But in high school, I would have never thought I would succeed as a STEM major, let alone a double major, and a large part of that was due to my lack of self-confidence.”

Her love of chemistry spilled over into role as a resident advisor of Hillcrest Hall, home of the Honors College, where she hosted chemistry nights. “I understand what it feels like to be intimidated by a subject such as chemistry, but I think when your perspective changes from living a life led by intellectual curiosity rather than fear and intimidation, it's incredible the things people can accomplish,” she added.

It was during her time as a resident advisor that Faunce was awarded the Housing and Residence Life Ryan C. Clark Award for Most Outstanding Spirit for her commitment to student learning. Her other efforts and accolades are long: Her work has been acknowledged through fellowships from the Henry Luce Foundation’s Clare Boothe Luce Program for Women in STEM and the Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation. She is also an Aspirations Fellow who won the Aspire! Award for Curiosity, an honor that recognizes students, faculty, and staff who exemplify Virginia Tech Student Affairs’ Aspirations for Student Learning. 

She also served as an undergraduate teaching assistant in the Department of Chemistry, lead ambassador for the School of Neuroscience, and Student Intellectual Property Society vice president, and helped found the Virginia Tech chapter of Nu Rho Psi, a National Honor Society in Neuroscience, in 2019.

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