How did you get to where you are now, in terms of your education and training in science?
- I was a Biology major at St. Lawrence University and during my last year there, I took two neuroscience courses that were co-taught by two of my favorite college professors. I immediately fell in love with the brain. At the time, I was particularly fascinated by the revolutionary idea that the brain is not fixed, but instead can produce new neurons throughout life, including adulthood, through a process called neurogenesis. This notion was in stark contrast to a long-held dogma in neuroscience that “everything may die, nothing may be regenerated.” During my undergraduate years, I also received valuable research experience doing summer research at the University of Rochester. Combining my fascination with adult neurogenesis and my natural curiosity in how environmental factors play a role in health and disease, I entered the Molecular Toxicology PhD training program at the University of Rochester. I investigated how persistent organic pollutants interfered with signaling pathways that are critical for propagation and survival of neural stem and progenitor cells (NSPCs). To dig deeper into the regulation of NSPCs, I went on to do postdoctoral research at the University of Texas Southwestern (UTSW) Medical Center in Dallas. At UTSW, I explored many intrinsic and extrinsic regulators of NSPCs in the context of various psychiatric and neurological disorders. I then returned to the University of Rochester to pursue additional postdoctoral training, this time with a focus on undergraduate teaching. It was during my most recent fellowship that I gained valuable training and experience in STEM undergraduate education.
You are deaf, yet you communicate incredibly well with your students and colleagues. How have you overcome this obstacle in both your scientific career and what advice would you give students who are overcoming their own obstacles while they pursue their education?
- This is a great question. It is a balancing act. I recognize my disability and I advocate for my needs; however, I do not let it get in the way of my goals and ambitions. I may be deaf, but I still go to work and communicate with my colleagues and students, just in a different way. I don’t view myself as having a disability; I am just different. While I would say my deafness defines how I interact with the world, there is more to me than not being able to hear. I use the phrase “I have a disability,” as that allows me to advocate for myself, but I would not say “I am disabled.” I want to be an ally and a welcoming individual to students who are struggling with their own challenges. I want to help them learn the balance between accepting and advocating for themselves, while also not allowing their abilities to get in the way of their education and goals.
What classes are you planning to teach this coming spring? Is there one in particular you are most excited about?
- I am most excited to teach Introduction to the Neurosciences. It is like deja vu for me because this was the course where I found my love of the brain and the nervous system. While I did not know it at the time, this was the course that helped set the stage for the rest of my career and I hope to have a similar impact for my students.
Please describe your line of research.
- I am a neurotoxicologist with research interests in neuroscience, toxicology, and environmental health. My formal training is in Molecular Toxicology and much of my research has been devoted to studying intrinsic and extrinsic regulators of neural stem and progenitor cells (NSPCs) and new neuron production, a process known as neurogenesis. My research to date has covered a wide range of themes that related to neurogenesis, spanning from molecular regulators, environmental adaptations, and neuro-immune interactions in the context of many psychiatric and neurological disorders including depression, anxiety, Down syndrome, and ischemic stroke. Currently, my research is focused on the cellular and molecular underpinnings that determine how NSPCs are impacted by exposures to anthropogenic and naturally occurring chemicals.
Do you have a particular favorite chemical or brain region/structure of study?
- The hippocampus! Mainly due to my fascination with adult neurogenesis, since it is one of the regions in which an adult brain can produce new neurons. Even more, the research history of adult neurogenesis continues to be a controversial topic in neuroscience, making the hippocampus even more exciting for me to study.
- As for a chemical, I would say the large class of anthropogenic chemicals known as persistent organic pollutants (POPs). Toxicology research used to focus on high-dose, acute effects of POP exposure with the idea that higher doses elicit higher toxicity, essentially following a simple linear relationship between dose and response. However, research is shifting to low-dose exposures, as humans are nowadays more commonly exposed to POPs via daily, low-dose exposures. With this shift, research is revealing that the dogma in toxicology, summed up as “the dose makes the poison,” may not hold true for some chemicals. Instead, evidence suggests that POPs may follow non-traditional, non-linear dose-response curves and that low doses may not necessarily mean no toxicity. In fact, sometimes chemicals show beneficial or aversive effects at low doses, but no effects at high doses. It is this new perspective on POPs that makes it very exciting for me to study.
Besides being a neurotoxicologist, what do you like to do for fun?
- I enjoy swimming, working out, and playing with my cat, Luna.
What else would you like the St. Mary’s community to know about you?
- I invite anyone who is interested in neuroscience, toxicology, or cell culture models to engage in directed research projects with me.