Isadora Porter, Jasmine Jenkins, Ebony Mason and Niara Taylor, all C’2013, are trying to find answers to some pretty tough neuroscientific questions:How can a protein act as a neuroprotectant against inflammatory stimuli? Or how can a particular gene affect the social behavior in small rodents like prairie voles? By researching these questions, the students hope to gain insight for the advance treatment of major neurological-related ailments, such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases.
Porter, Jenkins, Mason and Taylor are among a select group of Atlanta-area college students involved in cutting-edge research that could one day change the field of neuroscience. Thanks to the Atlanta Neuroscience Education and Training Program, or NET/work as it’s more commonly known, all four students are gaining hands-on experience in neuroscience, the study of the human nervous system, the brain, and the biological basis of consciousness, perception, memory, and learning.
With dreams of becoming a neurologist, Porter said the NET/work program allows her to focus on a field of study that she’s been interested in since elementary school. She spends about 15 hours each week in a lab at the Emory University School of Medicine, where she works with a protein that deactivates G-Proteins, a family of proteins that cause changes in cells. Also, they are involved in transmitting chemical signals outside of cells and communicating signals from many hormones and neurotransmitters.
“This program has given me a lot of insight regarding Parkinson’s disease and has expanded my interest in what I want to work on specifically as a neurologist,” said Porter, a biology major, who plans to work with neurodegenerative disorders and diseases of the brain such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and spinal cord injuries.
Funded with a $1.7 million grant from the National Institutes of Health, the program includes up to 14 students each year from Spelman, Georgia State University, Emory University, and Agnes Scott College. Designed to encourage and prepare students from diverse backgrounds to pursue neuroscience careers, the project provides a two-year neuroscience research immersion program for undergraduate students from underrepresented groups, with the goal of increasing entrance into neuroscience doctorate programs. The five-year award is part of the National Institute of Health’s Blueprint for Enhancing Neuroscience Diversity through Undergraduate Research Education Experiences.
While in the program, students receive paid research assistantships, work with mentors, attend national conferences, and network with professionals around the country who share similar research interests. During their first summer in the program, students participate in Behavioral Research Advancements in Neuroscience, a 10-week, full-time undergraduate research program and minicourse in neuroscience. They then begin doing research, followed by an internship and the opportunity to write a senior thesis and present at a national conference.
Jenkins, a psychology/premed major, works in the Young laboratory at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center at Emory University. She is exploring the developmental role of the oxytocin receptor gene on social behavior in the socially monogamous prairie vole using shRNA and transgenic technology.
“Neuroscience is a perfect combination of psychology and biology,” said Jenkins, who serves as vice president of Women in Neuroscience at Spelman, and plans to become a child psychiatrist. “People who study neuroscience usually go on to become neuroscientists, neurologists or psychiatrists. That’s what makes this program perfect for me.”
For Mason, a biology/premed major, the NET/work program gives her the opportunity to think analytically through research, and has strengthened her leadership, presentation and communications skills. She’s currently conducting neurobehavioral research at Yerkes on chimpanzees. Her project focuses on the gray matter of the insular cortex, a small region of the brain located between the frontal and temporal lobes, and its implication for self-agency/self-awareness.
“The best part of my research is the communication with the chimpanzees,” she said. “It is amazing to see how they learn and adapt to things so rapidly. They are truly intelligent mammals.”
Karen Brakke, Ph.D., associate professor and chair of psychology at Spelman, said student research is particularly important because of its potential impact.
“Many of the health issues we face now are rooted in neuroscientific questions,” said Dr. Brakke . “It’s important that we have a strong research force in this area and that this research force reflects our population.” – Alicia Lurry is senior communications specialist and editor of the Spelman Connection for the Office of Communications.
How can more young Black women be encouraged to pursue careers in STEM? Be sure to join Inside Spelman’s Tweet Chat on Wednesday, November. 16, from noon to 1 p.m. to share your thoughts on Black women and STEM. The best tweet wins!