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Prior Undergraduate Research Program Fellows

Georgia Maria Vasilakis
Georgia My passion for medicine, and neuroscience in particular, was sparked in grade school, and I knew that I wanted to pursue a career in medicine to help improve the wellbeing of others. When I discovered the CTHMR research fellowship, I was excited to learn that the program not only engages students in cutting-edge research, but also bridges the gap between “bedside and bench.” During the summer of 2015, I worked alongside Dr. Marianne Seney studying the sex differences in Major Depressive Disorder (MDD). The Seney lab has a two-pronged approach: 1) investigate the primary pathology of MDD using human postmortem brain tissue, and 2) use mouse models to determine mechanisms underlying sex differences observed in humans. For my summer research project, I analyzed expression of several GABA-related genes in the basolateral amygdala (BLA) from mice that had undergone unpredictable chronic mild stress (UCMS). Our lab had already found a deficit of some of these genes in the frontal cortex of these same mice, and we wanted to know if this deficit was brain-wide or specific to the frontal cortex. My findings suggested that some of the deficits we originally observed in the frontal cortex extended to the amygdala, while others seem to be specific to frontal cortex. The clinical exposures throughout the summer allowed me to interact with depression patients of all ages and backgrounds; consequently, these exposures strongly reinforced my passion for medicine by reminding me that my contributions to psychiatric research could ultimately help people who suffer from major depression. I look forward to returning to the Seney lab to continue investigating the BLA, as well as attending medical school in the future.

Jennifer Cortes
Jennifer I have always been perplexed by how little is known about the brain. The brain determines every aspect of our behavior, but the complexity of the specific neuronal circuits involved in causing psychiatric disorders or responsible for decision making are not yet fully understood. The number of patients I saw struggling with addiction when I shadowed a neurologist back at home is what motivated me to contact Dr. Charles Bradberry and become involved with the research he does on the neurobiology of cocaine addiction. During the spring semester I was introduced to the nonhuman primates used in Dr. Bradberry's research and worked on Matlab data analysis of neuron recordings. However, my school work prevented me from delving fully into the research experience. So when I heard about this Summer Fellowship I was immediately interested. Not only has the fellowship given me the opportunity to spend more time in the lab, but the clinical exposure aspect of the program has reminded me of the importance of psychiatric research. Furthermore, the fellowship training sessions have allowed me to consider the multiple career paths that I might want to take: I can pursue an MD or a PhD in either neurology or psychiatry, or I can obtain both an MD and a PhD through a MSTP program.

Dhruv Kohli
Dhruv I have always been amazed by the fact that the most complex thing in the known universe, the brain, sits just inside of our heads, yet we know relatively little about it. My interest in neuroscience really developed into a passion when, as a young boy, my grandmother suffered from a stroke and had her whole life turned upside down. I became curious as to how her brain was so drastically affected, and I eagerly tried to learn as much as I could about the brain. One of the best opportunities I have had to explore neuroscience was through this Summer Research Fellowship. I learned about it through the Pitt American Medical Students Association and was immediately drawn to its unique approach to translational neuroscience, which involves using clinical observations to inform laboratory research. I worked under the mentorship of Dr. Kirsten O’Hearn during the summer of 2014, studying face processing in autistic individuals using fMRI. I was also able to supplement my experiences in the lab by attending clinical exposures that showed me what it was like to actually interact with the patients who were affected by the research I was doing, and that was invaluable. My time in the CCNMD fellowship has demonstrated to me the importance of both clinical experience and research in finding the answers to the numerous questions we have in neuroscience, and I now hope to pursue both of these by eventually being accepted to an MD/PhD program.

Sennay Ghenbot
Sennay My interest in Neuroscience was sparked by a family member’s diagnosis with a neuromuscular disorder. I had always been interested in the brain but was never had any motivation to truly pursue it. I came into my freshmen year as a Neuroscience major to see if the subject matter could turn my curiosity into a budding passion. After taking “Drugs and Behavior,” an introductory class offered in the Neuroscience department, my interest was sparked. After a year had passed, I was able to finally enroll in the “Introductory to Neuroscience” course. My professor mentioned the Summer Fellowship in early February and I decided to apply. I was awarded the Fellowship and began working in Dr. Kenneth Fish’s Lab that summer. The research I focused on was concerned with the inputs of inhibitory cells on the axon initial segment of Pyramidal Cells in the Prefrontal Cortex, in relation to schizophrenia. In addition to learning an incredible amount of information about schizophrenia, as well as the inhibitory circuits that involve pyramidal cells, I also had the opportunity to participate in clinical exposures and shadow medical professionals. The bench to bed dynamic that this Fellowship provided created a motivating laboratory environment, in addition to a firsthand look at the pathology of schizophrenia. This Fellowship was a wonderful experience – I plan on continuing my work in Dr. Fish’s lab during the semester and hope to achieve my goal of attending medical school.

Raissa Berry
RaissaIn high school I developed a strong interest in my science classes, but it wasn't until my anatomy and physiology courses that my desire to pursue a career in medicine was established. The nervous system intrigued me the most, so I specifically chose neuroscience as my focus upon entering college with hopes of attending medical school and becoming a neurologist. Last spring, my Introduction to Neuroscience lecturer informed us of this fellowship opportunity, and I was instantly captivated by the description and knew that I wanted to apply. I was chosen to participate as a fellow in the summer of 2013, working under the mentorship of Dr. John Enwright in the Lewis Lab. Over the course of ten weeks, I worked on a project regarding pyramidal cells surrounded by perineuronal nets in schizophrenia. During this time, I was also able to participate in many clinical exposures observing schizophrenia from a clinical prospective as well. I loved my time spent partaking in the undergraduate fellowship and learned many important things from the wonderful faculty and other fellows. So much so, that I've even begun considering a new career path of neuropsychiatry. I plan to continue working in the lab and towards my goal of attending medical school.

Fasil Mathews
FasilI believe that the brain is the furthest frontier in the human body, compelling me to view neuroscience research as the route to unearth what truly makes us human. When I heard about the CCNMD and CABD fFellowships from my neuroscience advisor, two aspects of the program that I found most appealing were the various clinical exposure possibilities and the translational approach to research. The clinical shadowing opportunities that I took advantage of during the program opened my eyes to an array of complex, debilitating diseases. In addition, the bench-to-bedside method of research that I was engaged in during the summer has made connecting my work in the lab to therapeutic interventions very lucid. This past summer I worked with Dr. Etienne Sibille on studying the effects of aging on gene expression of various components of the GABAergic system in the human frontal cortex. I learned so much as a result of my involvement in this project, including numerous lab techniques, presentation skills, and troubleshooting methods. These experiences have solidified my desire to pursue a career in medicine; however, I have realized that I would like to join clinical medicine with clinical research in my future career plans in order to contribute to both the bench and bedside.

Sowmya Sanapala
SowmyaNeuroscience is fascinating to me because it appears to be the foundation of all human research. From examining societal interactions through anthropology to understanding the pathways behind our natural reflexes, neuroscience research has provided a steady source of answers and progress. Through my volunteering experience in nursing homes and hospitals I have seen how debilitating degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's and Schizophrenia can be, affecting both the individual as well as their family. After my coursework exposed me to the pathology of the disease, I decided to seek out an opportunity to pursue related research. While speaking with Dr. Stricker regarding summer pursuits, I became aware of the undergraduate fellowship and decided to apply. This brought me to the TNP, specifically Dr. Lewis's lab, where I began my work on the presence of perineuronal nets in schizophrenia under the mentorship of Dr. John Enwright III. I learned a great deal of microscopy and image analysis methodology and even had the opportunity to watch the meticulous process of harvesting a brain and preserving specific anatomical sections. The program allowed me to attend various clinical exposures throughout Pittsburgh, putting all the research that I was exposed to in perspective. It illustrated how people cope with such an illness and how the community and medical teams provide strong support. I plan on continuing work in the lab throughout the upcoming semesters and would like to eventually attend University of Pittsburgh's School of Medicine.

Kokomma Ekong
KokommaBefore my freshman year, I know I wanted to pursue a career in psychiatry because I have always had a great interest in the human brain and behavior. While volunteering in Dr. Sibille's lab my sophomore year, I learned more about the human brain, how it functions, and various mental illnesses. I became very interested in neuroscience and decided to major in psychology and minor in neuroscience. A couple of my friends who previously participated in the undergraduate fellowship told me that it was a great experience and that I should look into it. Immediately, I applied for the fellowship because I knew it would be a great opportunity, especially concerning my goal of becoming a psychiatrist. In the summer of 2012 I was accepted into the fellowship program and continued to work in the Sibille lab. Working in the lab was challenging and I was able to work independently on my own project of autophagy and how it is related to Major Depression. I learned many new techniques (such as qPCR), procedures, and analyses that dealt with Major Depression. Along with the lab work, I was able to participate in several clinical exposures, which I always looked forward to. I am very grateful that I participated in the fellowship. It gave me the confidence of working independently, the opportunity to meet different faculty members, and a preview of some of the activities I would be able to do in the psychiatric field.

Tyler Hein
TylerMy passion for psychiatric research developed the summer before my freshman year of college. I was volunteering in an outpatient psychiatric clinic in my hometown. Although I had entered that position with the full intention of becoming a clinician, I quickly became interested in research. Watching the patients I worked with continue to struggle with their mental health in spite of many different treatments inspired me to learn more about psychiatric disease processes, potential treatments, and preventative measures. This interest led me to pursue the Neuroscience major. I learned about the TNP and this undergraduate research fellowship when I was looking for research positions. It was the first time that I had felt I wasn't alone in my desire to take clinical observations and use them to drive psychiatric research. In 2011, I was selected as an undergraduate fellow, and began working in Dr. Phillips' lab. I was involved in a longitudinal study that follows children displaying manic symptoms. Specifically, I assisted in the design and programming of several paradigms for the study. I will be continuing research in Dr. Phillips' group this school year, under Dr. Perlman. I will be assisting in an fMRI study of children with emotion dysregulation and in an fNIRS study of young children. This undergraduate research fellowship helped me to discover my true passion for psychiatric research. In the future, I plan to pursue a PhD in cognitive neuroscience and research related to the psychiatric disease processes, specifically in children and adolescents.

Tyler was accepted into the University of Michigan’s PhD program in Developmental Psychology in the fall of 2013.

Cameron Olezene
CameronWhen I first came to college, my principal interest was biology. However, I had always found the brain to be fascinating, so my sophomore year I enrolled in Introduction to Neuroscience. I loved the course so much that I decided to major in Neuroscience. Later that year I was contacted about positions available in the summer fellowship program to do neuroscience research. I started working in the Translational Neuroscience Program (TNP) the summer after my sophomore year. I worked with Dr. Gonzalez-Burgos performing electrophysiology experiments and studying the effects of THC on neural circuits. I learned a lot that summer about the pathophysiology of schizophrenia and the different techniques employed to study it. I was also fortunate to participate in a variety of clinical exposures to better understand the symptoms of Schizophrenia and how it impacts the lives of people living with the disease. The summer fellowship was a great opportunity for me. It introduced me to a lot amazing faculty and cutting edge research, as well as to help me hone my skills as a scientist. My plans for the future are to continue working in my lab and see where it takes me.

Cameron began medical training at Harvard Medical School in fall 2013

Elizabeth Anger
ElizabethMy interest in mental health research was sparked at a young age because I had a close family member who suffered from bipolar disorder. Before I had even taken a human biology class, I was curious what was going on in her brain and how it contributed to her behavior. Once I reached college, studying neuroscience and psychology was the natural route for me to take. During my sophomore year I learned about the Translational Neuroscience Program (TNP) at the University of Pittsburgh, and was intrigued by its translational approach to schizophrenia research. I volunteered in Dr. David Lewis’s lab, and continued training throughout the next two years. The summer of 2010 I was accepted into the Undergraduate Fellowship Program. This program was a valuable opportunity as it allowed me work on my own project throughout the summer and receive more individualized training attention from my post-doctoral mentor, Dr. Jill Glausier. I'm currently examining and writing a thesis on the localization of GAD65 and GAD67 mRNA in Rhesus monkey prefrontal cortex, using in situ hybridization, light microscopy, and film analysis. I particularly valued the clinical exposure program available to members of the TNP, which gave me the opportunity to shadow mental health clinicians in various settings. The exposure program, the TNP and this fellowship have elevated my compassion for individuals with schizophrenia and have given me a profound respect for those who are engaged in mental health research.

Elizabeth was accepted into the University of Rochester’s PhD program in Translational Biomedical Science.

Laetitia Ngamassi
LaetitiaMy interest in Neuroscience developed in the first semester of my freshman year, when I took the Brain and Behavior course run by the Department of Neuroscience. I had never learned about the brain or its functions before taking that course, so discovering the complexities of the brain and its various roles was fascinating. My intended major was Biology, but now I want to pursue a major in Neuroscience so that I can continue to acquire more knowledge about the brain. One of my friends had signed up to receive emails about different research opportunities on campus. She then received an email about the undergraduate fellowship and later informed me about it. Immediately, I knew that a program like this fellowship would be a great opportunity for me to gain exposure to research, since I had no prior experience with it. During the summer of 2010, I started working in Dr. Raymond Cho’s lab. The research was focused on the Practice Effects in Performance and EEG Gamma oscillations during a Cognitive Control task. I was involved in both the processing and analysis of data sets. In addition to working in the lab, I participated in the program’s clinical exposures and got to interact with patients. Overall, I had a wonderful experience during the summer fellowship. I plan to pursue a career in medicine upon graduating from college and possibly continue to do research on schizophrenia, with the aim of answering the unsettled questions about the disorder.

Kristen Delevich
KristenI first became interested in neuroscience as a grade school student watching a NOVA program on the brain. That curiosity continued, and I pursued neuroscience as potential major my freshman year at the University of Pittsburgh. That year, I discovered the Translational Neuroscience Program (TNP) through the Department of Neuroscience website. As I learned more, I was excited that the research at the TNP seemed to tackle questions that would result in a better understanding of schizophrenia and, in the long-run, have the potential to positively impact the lives of people living with such a difficult disease. In 2006, I joined the TNP as an Undergraduate Student Researcher in the laboratory of Dr. Robert Sweet [link], and my research with him focused on alterations in sensory processing circuits in primary auditory cortex of subjects with schizophrenia. Through this research, I was given the opportunity to present a poster at the Society for Biological Psychiatry Conference and also aid in preparing a paper for Brain Research. My experience at the TNP has deepened my commitment to translational research, specifically as it serves individuals with neuropsychiatric diseases. I graduated from Pitt in 2009, and I’m continuing my training in neuroscience towards a PhD at the Watson School of Biological Sciences. The aim of my current research is to one day develop a neuroprotective therapy for schizophrenia.

Sam Stoyak
SamWhen I entered college and started looking into fields of research to pursue, I knew I wanted to study something that was a true scientific frontier. Amazingly, one of those frontiers was inside my very own head. I had always been fascinated with how the mind works, and I wanted to understand the biological processes responsible for human thought and consciousness. When I told my academic advisor that I was interested in doing research, she recommended Dr. David Lewis in the Translational Neuroscience Program (TNP). I looked into Dr. Lewis' research online and knew immediately that I wanted to work with him. I began working in the TNP during my sophomore year, and, with the guidance of Dr. Lewis and TNP investigator Dr. Stephen Eggan, I gradually developed my research to focus on characterizing the endocannabinoid system (specifically, the CB1 receptor) in schizophrenia and how it might contribute to the pathophysiology of the illness. It was an incredible learning experience which was highlighted by the friendships I made with the great people - faculty, research staff, and other trainees of all levels - who work in the TNP. Through my research experience with Dr. Lewis and his lab, the world of biomedical research was opened to me. Not only did this exposure help to develop my intellect and analytical skills, it also fostered in me an appreciation for research that will continue to guide my professional development as a medical student at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.

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Silvio O. Conte Center for Translational Mental Health Research
Funded by the National Institute of Mental Health (MH103204)

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