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School of Medicine discoveries

August 14, 2017

Real Beauty, Real Science

Gretchen Neigh, Ph.D., associate professor of anatomy and neurobiology, is the face of science.

Gretchen Neigh, Ph.D.

Anatomy and neurobiology’s Gretchen Neigh, Ph.D., was recently featured on Dove soap’s “Real Beauty” campaign, pointing out that beauty is using one’s strengths to improve the world.

At least one of them. You might have seen her on Dove soap’s “Real Beauty” campaign. Neigh recently responded to an online survey, suggesting they feature a woman in science because beauty is using one’s strengths to improve the world.

To her surprise, Dove asked her to share that message herself.

Neigh, who’s been at VCU’s School of Medicine about 18 months, aims to increase the visibility of women in science – and inspire the next generation to see it as a viable career path.

“When I was growing up [in rural Pennsylvania], the only scientist I had any idea existed was Mr. Wizard on Nickelodeon,” she says. She studied biology as an undergraduate, intending to go to veterinary school. But she began to doubt that career choice, and talked to her professors about other possibilities. “I knew some did research, but I didn’t really know what that entailed. My professors suggested I do some small research investigations.”

That led to an independent field study, camping out on the side of a hill in all weather to watch the behavior of a herd of llamas. “After that, I decided against field research,” she says. But research itself was a fit, and she ended up in an internship at Ohio State University. “The first time I saw a real, functional NIH-funded lab, I loved it and knew that was what I wanted to do.”

In her psychoneuroendocrinology and psychoneuroimmunology lab at VCU, she is studying the effects of stress on the body, and the biological changes that result in mental health challenges such as depression. She also sees the lab as a chance to mentor aspiring scientists and welcomes undergraduates onto her team.

“The steps following undergrad are highly competitive and sometimes difficult to navigate,” she says. “I want to help students figure out what they want, what they need to get to that goal, and encourage them along their chosen path.”

Neigh’s participation in Dove’s Real Beauty campaign was born of that spirit. As social media editor of the American College of Neuropsychopharmacology’s journal, she admits that she spends more time on Twitter than the average scientist might. “I’m always looking for ways to make it more publicly known that there’s a broad range of scientists.”

So when she noticed Dove’s call for participants in the Real Beauty promotion and wrote in, she was ready to recommend some peers. But Dove ended up asking her to be a face of the campaign.

Her quote:
“Real Beauty is using what makes you special to make the world more beautiful. I use my scientific abilities to study the brain with the goal of improving mental health.”

“People come in all shapes and sizes and areas of interest, and you can be more than one thing – scientists are more than just scientists,” she says. The multifaceted diversity in backgrounds, experiences and interests that the university offers were why she chose to come to VCU.

“VCU offers amazing programs to increase diversity in science. To have so many programs in one place is quite impressive and a tremendous opportunity to advance science.”

By Lisa Crutchfield

Virginia Commonwealth University
VCU Medical Center
School of Medicine
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Updated: 04/29/2016