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UNF Biology major gains real-life experience as he builds on his passion for research

UNF biology student Alexander BartkowiakWhen University of North Florida senior Alex Bartkowiak was a sophomore in high school, he became disinterested with the standard school curriculum. So, he dropped out of his public school after his sophomore year, convincing his parents to register him as a home schooler.  
“It wasn’t that I didn’t have a desire to learn, I just wanted to pursue my scientific interests,” said the 22-year-old Jacksonville native, poised to graduate this spring with a Bachelor of Science in Biology with a concentration on Cellular Molecular Biology/Biotechnology. “My parents had faith in me to let me take this leap.”    
Driven and determined, Bartkowiak excelled outside of the traditional classroom setting and furthered his passion for science and research by working in a local research lab while enrolled in home schooling.   
“Working in that lab provided me with foundational basic lab experience from learning basic molecular biology to designing experiments and lab management,” Bartkowiak said. “Every day presented a new and complex problem to be solved and I loved it. Although it was great experience and my first real taste in the field of research, it was immense responsibility for a 16-year-old.”
Fast forward a few years, Bartkowiak went on to earn his high school diploma and his associate degree from Florida State College at Jacksonville (FSCJ), before transferring to UNF in August 2020.   
During this time, his passion for research became personal and more focused. Having known many who suffered from depression in high school, Bartkowiak directed his scientific interests to learning how psychoactive compounds and antidepressant compounds worked in conjunction at the cellular level.  
“In my research, I read that some psychedelic compounds can exert antidepressant effects after one dose,” Bartkowiak explained.  
He said he was amazed to find out that the same molecules that caused humans to have hallucinations could also make them less depressed. He began to wonder if it was possible to design psychedelic compounds that induce antidepressant effects without causing hallucinations.  
“Since then, this has been the driving force in my life and I selected opportunities and built skills that allow me to explore and pursue the answer,” he said. 
A crucial connection
Armed with that focused curiosity, Bartkowiak met Dr. Marie Mooney, assistant professor of Biology, at a biology lecture he attended on campus in fall 2021. He told her about his research interests in neuropharmacology. 
“After several exchanges, she mentioned she had collected data from zebrafish cells exposed to neuroactive compounds, but had no one to analyze it,” said Bartkowiak. “I couldn’t jump fast enough at the opportunity to take this on.” 
From that point on, Bartkowiak said there was no looking back. 
According to Bartkowiak, zebrafish have a 70% gene commonality to humans and therefore, are ideal study subjects.  
Over the next few months, Bartkowiak immersed himself into learning as much as he could, researching and exploring various methodologies, even working through Christmas break, in order to present his findings to Dr. Mooney in January.  
“I was in my element,” said Bartkowiak. 
“Alex is a student who’s ‘always on,’” said Mooney. “His curiosity is astronomical, and he just wants to know everything that he can. The energy required for this level of curiosity resonates in the lab and makes it an exciting place to be.”    
At UNF, Mooney’s “MoonLIGHT” lab is Bartkowiak’s happy place. He helped establish UNF’s first zebrafish colony, assisting in building and testing the zebrafish housing system as well as establishing protocols still in use today. He is the self-proclaimed CFO – Chief Fish Officer of the lab.  
“When I spend time in the lab, I do well in class,” said Bartkowiak. “It’s that simple.” 
Mooney recognized that fact early on.  
“Part of why it’s been so fun to work with Alex and a few other top performing students in my lab is that they come to me as creators.” Mooney said. “We could use more of these creative folks in the STEM fields and when Alex talks about how he learns best ‘hands-on,’ what I see is that he learned best when he was creating things. This gives students like Alex the motivation to go back into the classroom and learn more foundational concepts because they open up new avenues for creation.” 
In Bartkowiak’s case, Mooney said his entire senior year was structured for a hands-on research experience, helping him stay maximally engaged and productive while providing him a solid launchpad into doctorate programs next year. 
“Doing things differently has had an incredibly positive impact on Alex and his future,” Mooney said. 
Sharing research findings
Bartkowiak has seized every challenge and opportunity presented to him from both his professors and his courses.  
Last November, he was invited to speak at the UNF Board of Trustees meeting, where he discussed his research interests and his educational journey at UNF.  
“It was a good experience for me to address these leaders and it gave me a chance to promote the great professors I’ve had along the way,” Bartkowiak said.   
According to Dr. Judith Ochrietor, associate professor of biology and director of the Office of Undergraduate Research, and one of the professors who recommended Bartkowiak address the BOT during their meeting, said sharing and communicating information from research is equally important as performing the research itself.  
“The Office of Undergraduate Research is committed to providing students opportunities to hone their communication skills,” said Ochrietor. “Having knowledge without an ability to share that knowledge with others limits how we advance in research.”  
The office expanded from hosting one on-campus symposium each year to one each semester to help students get those opportunities to share their research data and experiences, she said. The office also funds student travel to off-campus conferences so they can practice sharing with people they don’t know who sometimes aren’t within their discipline. 
“We are so pleased to receive feedback from these students about how they feel they’ve become more comfortable and confident in their communication skills because of these experiences,” Ochrietor said. 
Real-world scientific exposure
For many students, the opportunity to work alongside an expert in their chosen field can be a defining moment in their educational experience, and for Bartkowiak, his three internships provided just that.  
“Each internship has provided me with foundational experience and helped me further pinpoint my research interests and prepare me for graduate school,” Bartkowiak said.  
UNF biology student Alexander Bartkowiak sitting at a computerNearing the completion of his second semester internship with Mayo Clinic Jacksonville in the Department of Neuroscience, Bartkowiak is assisting in data analysis of a large multi-omics project, focusing on understanding the effect of different human isoforms of the Apolipoprotein E (APOE) gene on the aging process in targeted replacement mouse models.  
“Internships at Mayo Clinic are critical for fostering real-world scientific exposure, which is crucial for students like Alex,” said Dr. Zonghua Li, an Alzheimer researcher in the Department of Neuroscience at Mayo Clinic Jacksonville, and Bartkowiak’s mentor. “They offer a unique opportunity to engage the students directly with scientific questions and methodologies. For an institution like the Mayo Clinic, these internships are integral to nurturing the next generation of scientists and promoting the advancement of scientific knowledge.” 
“Alex has demonstrated exceptional enthusiasm and aptitude,” Li said. “He is a highly motivated and dedicated student with a profound passion for scientific research, particularly in pharmacological studies. His quick learning ability and dedication make me confident in his potential for a successful scientific career.” 
A future of discoveries
Bartkowiak said his goal is to one day be a Principal Investigator (PI) performing neuroscience research, specifically psychedelic pharmacology research, or to have his own lab in an academic setting.  
Mooney doesn’t doubt that will happen one day.  
“Alex absolutely has what it takes to be a PI,” Mooney said. “There's still plenty to learn, but he's been practicing all of the academic, laboratory and professional skills needed to accomplish this.” 
Students doing the kind of research Bartkowiak is doing leave UNF knowing how to function in a lab, write a research proposal, discuss work in public, study important topics, produce, review, and critique data, build a support team and manage interpersonal communications, Mooney said. 
“UNF's given Alex a head start, she said.  “I can't wait to see what Alex gets up to. Undoubtedly there are discoveries in his future.” 
“UNF has been good to me,” Bartkowiak said. “All my professors but especially Dr. Mooney and Dr. Ochrietor have been great mentors along the way.”      
Bartkowiak is also grateful that his parents trusted him to carve his own path.   
“I’m excited about the next chapter in graduate school and all the research I will be able to work on,” he said.     
Bartkowiak and other UNF students will be presenting their posters during the Florida Undergraduate Research Conference (FURC) 2024, taking place at UNF Friday and Saturday, Feb. 16-17.  
FURC is the largest disciplinary research conference in the country, available to all undergraduate researchers in the state of Florida who wish to submit their findings via poster. Along with important conference presentation experience, FURC offers some of the best networking chances with fellow academics and graduate programs nationwide, as well as workshops and other professional development opportunities. UNF is excited to host FURC for the third time in 2024.

NAME: Alexander Bartkowiak 
AGE: 22
CLASS: Senior, graduating Spring 2024
MAJOR: Biology, concentration in Cellular Molecular Biology/Biotechnology
DREAM JOB: A Principal Investigator or having his own research lab in an academic setting
WHAT’S NEXT: Graduate school
FAVORITE HOBBY: Science and gardening