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Posner Fellowship: Decoding energy use

Metabolic research becomes the foundation for enduring mentorship
Anthropologist William Leonard mentors Jennah Thompson-Vasquez. Photo by Rob Hart

- Part of a special feature on the Posner Fellowship Program, which offers students a chance to learn research skills with the help of a faculty mentor. 


Jennah Thompson-Vasquez ‘19, came to Northwestern thinking she would declare herself pre-med. Her lifelong interest in biological anthropology, cultivated in childhood by the TV show "Bones," led her to apply to Posner, and she’s glad she followed that instinct.

Jennah Thompson-Vasquez
Jennah Thompson-Vasquez

Thompson-Vasquez was matched with anthropology professor William Leonard, and she quickly took an interest in his nutritional health research. During summer 2016, Thompson worked with Leonard, his graduate assistant, Stephanie Levy, and two other undergraduates to measure variation in brown fat — a type of fat that actually uses energy — and the potential impact of brown fat on energy expenditure. Thompson-Vasquez helped recruit local participants and gather data, and the team showed that people with more brown fat show a greater rise in their metabolic rate when they are exposed to cold.

"Posner gave me the opportunity to hone my leadership and communication skills."

“I never thought about anthropology getting into human energetics and metabolism, but I think it’s super interesting,” Thompson-Vasquez says.

So interesting, in fact, that she and Leonard are continuing to work together over the winter quarter, as part of the Undergraduate Research Assistant Program. Thompson-Vasquez is working with Leonard and Levy to collect data from the same participants they measured in the summer, to determine if cold weather further enhances the metabolic response of the brown fat.

William Leonard
William Leonard

Thompson-Vasquez says her experience working with Leonard has enhanced her Northwestern experience. She says Posner helped her discover a passion for research, yet there were even more benefits that will serve her in whatever career she chooses.

“Posner gave me the opportunity to hone my leadership and communication skills,” Thompson-Vasquez says. “If you told me last year, or in high school, that I would be standing at a podium in front of a movie theatre-sized screen, talking about the work I had done over the summer, I would have thought you were insane.”

For Leonard, his involvement with Posner began as an “interesting opportunity,” and as a result of his work with Thompson-Vasquez it has become a critical component of his Northwestern direction.

“Posner has been a really important window for me into the way we can be better as faculty — and as departments — in encouraging students and involving them in research at an early stage,” Leonard says. “It’s a really impressive program.”

 - The Posner Fellowship Program began with a seed grant from the Davee Foundation secured by Northwestern alumnus Charles Stern ’52. Soon after, the program was, and still is, supported by the generous contributions of alumnus and Board of Trustees member Brian Posner ‘83.