NSF Graduate Research Fellow Award winner - Lauren Koenig

Lauren Koenig

Lauren Koenig is a doctoral candidate pursuing a dual degree in Integrative biology and ecology, evolutionary biology, and behavior in the College of Natural Science.  Koenig was initially drawn to a career in field biology, but her research experiences inspired her to dig deeper into the mechanisms that regulate animal behavior and response to environmental change. 

“I have always been interested in animal behavior,” Koenig said.  “Like many others in my field, I attribute my career interests to watching nature documentaries and frequent trips to the zoo when I was younger.” 

An introduction to neuroethology research as an undergraduate cemented her decision to pursue advanced study in STEM.

“The next step was to narrow my area of focus, so after graduation I pursued several fieldwork opportunities, including working at the Rocky Mountain Bio Lab in Colorado and the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute.  I was fortunate to work with a variety of animals including birds, bats, and ground squirrels, but my true passion has turned out to be the behavioral interactions between species.  I am excited to combine my academic and field experiences to study predator-prey relationships in graduate school.”  

Her current research focuses on pain resistance in grasshopper mice, a desert rodent that feeds on organisms that possess painful venoms (scorpions) or irritating sprays (pinacate beetles). Pain resistance is rare in nature because pain is an essential signal that helps organisms avoid harm in their environment. Her research examining the sensory adaptations of grasshopper mice for feeding on these prey items should help reveal the underlying biology responsible for this paradox.

“I am fascinated by the research questions being explored in the Rowe Lab because they truly have an integrative approach,” Koenig said.  “I am excited to address my research at all levels of biology, from molecular genetics and physiology to behavior and ecology.  With help from Matt and Ashlee Rowe, who have diverse expertise in all of those fields, I will be able to explore a complex study system that can’t be defined by any one subfield of biology.” 

Koenig said she hopes there will be many different applications of her research, stating there is much to be learned from other organisms and the way in which they regulate pain.  She aspires to contribute to research that seeks to elucidate the pain-pathway and identify therapeutic targets related to neuropathic diseases.  

The National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship award consists of a three-year annual stipend of $34,000, along with a $12,000 cost of education allowance for tuition and fees.  Koenig said she plans to use this award to pursue her research questions in newly expanded and creative directions.  

“I am extraordinarily grateful and honored to receive this award,” Koenig said.  “I can only begin to envision the ways in which this award will help support both my research and outreach efforts.  It enables greater flexibility, creativity, and freedom in pursuing my ideas and provides opportunities to meet and collaborate with other scientists.”

She said she also plans to help improve the status of women in STEM by taking on a greater role as a mentor, helping younger students the way that her advisors helped her. 

“I want to continue to make science and scientific tools accessible for women and for younger students, as early exposure to science inspired me and made a career in science seem possible,” Koenig said.