Congratulations to the Graduate Program in Neuroscience (GPN) spring class of 2023! Eleven trainees are graduating this week and to celebrate, we asked them for some of their favourite memories during their time at UBC, future plans and advice for future students.
Wenlin Chen, PhD
Supervisor: Dr. Yu Tian Wang
Thesis title: Tailoring allosteric modulators of NMDA receptors and GABA-A receptors for neurological disorders.
Summary of research: Using in-silico drug screening in combination with electrophysiology, my main project is focused on developing first-in-class modulators of NMDA receptors for stroke. My side projects were research-based precision medicine that involved characterizing rare mutations of GABA-A receptors identified in pediatric patients and repurposing FDA-approved drugs that can be readily prescribed to treat patients.
Future plans: As an Edwin S.H. Leong-CSC-UBC Ph.D. Scholarship recipient, I am planning to go back to China after graduation and dedicate my time and efforts to developing new drugs for degenerative diseases and also continue my path of practicing case-by-case precision medicine to help sick kids who are in need.
Advice for future students: When you start doing research, try exploring multiple directions and settle down on at least two of them. This can help secure your path to graduation. Don’t push yourself too hard. Remember to communicate with your supervisor, and also look for collaborators to get work done more rapidly and efficiently.
Chloe Chernoff, MSc
Supervisor: Dr. Catharine Winstanley
Thesis title: Dissociating the role of prefrontal noradrenaline signaling in cost-benefit decision making and impulsive action.
Summary of research: Using the cued rat gambling task, a rodent behavioural task that measures cost-benefit decision making and impulsivity, I investigated how noradrenaline may act to guide risk taking and impulsive action. I found that noradrenaline action in the orbitofrontal cortex improves decision making in males while noradrenaline signaling in the prelimbic cortex is more important for inhibiting impulsive actions. These findings help us understand the neurochemical mechanisms behind prefrontal regulation of risk taking and impulse control.
Favourite GPN memory: Attending weekly seminars featuring students and international scientists, bonding with other trainees over the struggles and triumphs of neuroscience work, and traveling the world with my labmates to present our new and exciting data!
Future plans: I will continue to follow my passion for behavioural neuroscience, and will start a fully funded PhD program at the University of Cambridge, UK in October! I will be looking at how noradrenaline contributes to the vulnerability to progress into maladaptive compulsive drug seeking in a rodent model of addiction.
Tanisse Epp, MSc
Supervisor: Dr. Christian Schütz
Thesis title: Biased attentional processing associated with concurrent disorders: an event-related potential study.
Summary of research: This study captures attention bias to drug cues in individuals with severe mental health and substance use disorders (i.e. concurrent disorders). Attention bias to drug and drug-related cues is a substantial key factor in the maintenance of addiction and relapses. Using electroencephalography (EEG), we found a significant bias to emotionally provocative images, including drug and non-drug-related cues in individuals with concurrent disorders compared to controls.
Favourite GPN memory: Run club last summer! I look back at my time with the GPN, and I love thinking back to when an assortment of students within neuroscience at UBC would strap on our runners at the end of a tough day and jog around the community, talking about life, and hyping each other up. Even better, we would end every session with local kombucha and good conversations. So much fun!!
Future plans: Come September, I will be starting my Ph.D. in Neuroscience at Carleton University, where I will be working under the supervision of Dr. Kim Hellemans. My research will be focused on understanding “substance use health” and the stigmatization associated with substance use among university students.
Yang Ge, PhD
Supervisor: Dr. Yu Tian Wang
Thesis title: Enhancement of the GluN2B subtype of n-methyl-d-aspartate glutamate receptor for memory improvement.
Summary of research: We first used computer-assisted drug discovery combined with functional assays to develop drugs that positively modulated the function of an N-methyl-d-aspartate glutamate receptor subtype. Following that, we characterized the function of this drug on synaptic plasticity and learning/memory formation and found that the drug enhanced synaptic plasticity and the performance of rats in an object recognition task.
Future plans: To be a lifelong neuroscientist!
Advice for future students: There will be times during your degree that you struggle to make progress in your research. It is important to get social support, keep developing your skills, and remind yourself of the purpose behind your work. Additionally, I found it helpful to have a less risky project that can help you ground yourself and know that you are making progress.
Brett Hathaway, PhD
Supervisor: Dr. Catharine Winstanley
Thesis title: Cognitive and neural underpinnings of the interaction between reward-paired cues, risky choice, and cognitive flexibility.
Summary of research: I studied risky decision making in rats. I found that pairing lights and sounds with reward delivery on a risky decision-making task can both increase risky choice and impair flexibility. My work identified the orbitofrontal cortex as a key region underlying this effect.
Advice for future students: Keep in mind it’s a marathon, not a sprint! Hard work is key to succeeding, but don’t hesitate to take breaks when you need them.
Tristan Joshua Philippe, PhD
Supervisor: Dr. Victor Viau
Thesis title: Sex, serotonin and adaptive responses to stress.
Summary of research: I demonstrated that male and female rats show different changes in serotonin receptor availability, secondary messenger, and function in response to stress HPA habituation. I subsequently characterized transcriptional responses in several brain regions of interest to demonstrate that males and females utilize strikingly different genes, patterns, and brain regions to respond to stress. My expertise in bioinformatics data analysis has led to collaborations with other biologists and many valuable insights.
Favourite GPN memory: I really appreciated working with and mentoring many wonderful undergraduate students. From slicing brains, brain surgery, presenting at conferences, all the way to making bubble tea. We had a blast kids!
Future plans: My PhD helped me develop both data science skills and a deep understanding of biology to extract the most value from this data. Since I love discovering new insights from biological data, I am continuing to do research and lead projects to advance medical research. I look forward to directing a team of researchers to answer complex scientific questions.
Olivia Sullivan, MSc
Supervisor: Dr. Annie Ciernia
Thesis title: Inhibition of Hdac3 during immune stimulus ameliorates sex-specific depressive-like behaviour and aberrant microglial morphology in the amygdala.
Summary of research: We investigated Hdac3 epigenetic regulation of microglial activation in a neuroimmune model of major depressive disorder (MDD). We found that inhibiting Hdac3 rescued depressive-like behaviour and aberrant microglial morphology in a sex-specific way. This research presents Hdac3 as a potential therapeutic target to regulate abnormal microglial function in MDD.
Favourite GPN memory: I loved the power hours that GPN hosted last year. It was nice to take a break from grad school chaos and discuss various life topics with peers and faculty.
Advice for future students: Attending seminars and talks is a great way to learn what else is being done in the field and gain insight on how you can improve your presentation style, slide designs and data visualization.
Aarya Vaikakkara Chithran, PhD
Supervisor: Dr. Tim O’Connor
Thesis title: Maintenance of neural circuits in the adult nervous system.
Summary of research: In the adult nervous system, neuronal loss may be caused due to the lack of essential proteins or due to the toxicity of abnormal proteins. My thesis aims to tie together these two aspects by firstly, examining the role of essential proteins called ‘axon guidance cues’ in the active maintenance of neural circuits and secondly, by developing a novel Drosophila model to study the potential contribution of protein toxicity to neuronal death.
Favourite GPN memory: Neuroscience Retreat at the Nita Lake Lodge, Whistler in 2014.
Advice for future students: Grad school will be challenging but don’t drown yourself in work. Find a good way to release your stress. Vancouver and UBC have a lot to offer, so learn to enjoy your experience here!
Shayan Keymanesh, MSc
Supervisor: Dr. Silke Appel-Cresswell
Thesis title: Microbiome-gut-brain axis and dietary interventions in Parkinson’s disease.
Lucero Aceves Serrano, PhD
Supervisor: Dr. Doris Doudet
Thesis title: Neuromodulatory effects of theta burst stimulation, a molecular and functional assessment.
Shunya Yagi, PhD
Supervisor: Dr. Liisa Galea
Thesis title: Sex differences in adult hippocampal neurogenesis and the influence of estradiol.