Visitor of the Week: Roberto Hernandez

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Meet Roberto Hernandez of the Florida Atlantic University. A member of Gregory Macleod’s lab, the second-year graduate student returns to CSHL for another drosophila­-centric program. In 2017, Roberto took part in the Neurobiology of Drosophila meeting and is training at our Drosophila Neurobiology: Genes, Circuits & Behavior course this time around.

What are your research interests? What are you working on?
I am currently investigating how neuronal pH changes during synaptic activity and the impact these changes have on neurotransmission.  

How did you decide to make this the focus of your research?
I became interested in this topic while helping Michal Stawarski collect neurophysiological data while disturbing pH homeostasis during neurotransmission. This project drove me to question how many untreatable neurological disorders may be related to pH imbalance in the central nervous system. However, the lack of research on pH dynamics in neurons and its effects on neurotransmission makes it difficult to venture into this topic. But this didn’t stop me. The lack of information and unique challenges presented by this project gave me an inexplicable sense and passion to discover the unknown as well as provide others with some insight into this field. 

How did your scientific journey begin?
The application of scientific knowledge to understand how humans and the world functions has always been a source of wonder to me. Inspired by the many scientific documentaries I have watched and the ambition to one day either make a discovery or treat individuals led me to pursue a career in the STEM field. There was a point in time when I aspired to become a medical doctor specializing in neurology and scientific research was nowhere on my radar. My organic chemistry professor at Miami Dade College, Dr. Carlos Fernandez introduced me to scientific research and had often hinted that the qualities I possess were that of a scientist. Upon graduating with an A.A., I moved to the Harriet L. Wilkes Honors College of Florida Atlantic University and was still very much interested in the medical tract. However, I became more curious about research and joined Dr. Gregory Macleod’s lab which was where I grew to further appreciate scientific research, found a deep passion for neuroscience, and decided to pursue a PhD in Integrative Biology-Neuroscience. 

Was there something specific about the Drosophila Neurobiology course that drew you to apply?
I found the Drosophila Neurobiology course of interest because the lab techniques it covers will take my current skill set to the next level and see me through my PhD and scientific career. Further, this course provides me with the unique opportunity to learn about the ongoing research in the Drosophila community and network with the students also attending the courses. 

What and/or how will you apply what you’ve learned from the course to your work?
This course provides many benefits for unraveling disruptions to the anatomy and physiology of the fly. Being trained in high-speed fluorescent imaging, immunohistochemistry, and electrophysiology will enable me to assess differences in signaling mechanisms or structures as well as elucidate distinct neurophysiological phenotypes caused by acid-base imbalances. Learning the proper methods of studying specific behaviors will help me to determine how the mutation is affecting the memory and motor functions of the fly, linking a molecular phenotype to a behavioral response. I hope to apply these skills to investigate genetic mutations that disrupt acid-base homeostasis during neurotransmission (a concept poorly researched to date) by transferring such mutations to Drosophila via CRISPR in conjunction with other molecular techniques.

What is your key takeaway from the course?
The different perspectives and approaches of application that are available to my research. 

If someone curious in attending this course asked you for feedback or advice on it, what would you tell him/her?
This course is phenomenal; the techniques you will learn are valuable in neuroscience and required for any lab using Drosophila as a model organism. Further, you get the rare opportunity of learning taught these techniques from the best scientists in the field. Also important is the opportunity to make connections with others within the field, connecting you to the greater Drosophila community. 

What do you like most about your time at CSHL?
What I like most about my time at CSHL is the opportunity I have in making friendships with fellow course members and network with guest speakers.

Roberto received a scholarship from the International Brain Research Organization (IBRO) to cover a portion of his course tuition. On behalf of Roberto, thank you to IBRO for supporting and enabling our young scientists to attend a CSHL course where they expand their skills, knowledge, and network.

Thank you to Roberto for being this week's featured visitor. To meet other featured scientists - and discover the wide range of science that takes part in a CSHL meeting or course - go here.

Visitor of the Week: Natasha Pacheco

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Meet Natasha Pacheco of the Inova Translational Medicine Institute where she is a postdoctoral research fellow. Natasha is on campus for this summer’s Statistical Methods for Functional Genomics course which makes this her fourth time at the Laboratory. Her CSHL course and meeting history includes the 2015 Biology of Genomes, 2016 Programming for Biology course, and 2017 meeting of Genome Informatics.

What are your research interests? What are you working on?
I’m broadly interested in using bioinformatics applications to understand how genetic variants contribute to different diseases. My current research project focuses on characterizing noncoding DNA regulatory elements in congenital heart disease (CHD), with the ultimate goal of identifying genetic variants within noncoding DNA elements in CHD patients.

How did you decide to make this the focus of your research?
The need to understand the functional roles of noncoding DNA elements has long been recognized, yet it’s fascinating to me how little we know about basic concepts like what defines a noncoding DNA element. Before we can begin to address how different genetic variants could affect a noncoding DNA element’s functional role, we need better definitions of what noncoding DNA elements are and what their targets are under normal biological conditions.

How did your scientific journey begin?
I first got inspired in 8th grade when my science teacher played the movie Lorenzo’s Oil. This movie is based on a true story about a young boy diagnosed with the genetic disorder Adrenoleukodystrophy (ALD). I was so amazed by how such a seemingly small change in a single gene could cause such a devastating disorder like ALD. I knew then that I wanted to understand how genetics influences health and disease.

Was there something specific about the Statistical Methods in Functional Genomics course that drew you to apply?
My research project requires the integration of different types of bioinformatics tools and large “omics” data sets. I quickly realized that I needed a more solid foundation of the underlying statistics for many of the bioinformatics tools I need to use, and how to pick and use the best bioinformatics tools for my research needs.

What and/or how will you apply what you’ve learned from the course to your work?
So far I’ve learned how important it is to understand your data set and the question(s) you’re trying to ask, as well as great tools in R and Bioconductor to analyze and visualize different types of data.

What is your key takeaway from the course?
Really spend time to understand the statistics behind different bioinformatics tools, as different statistics can address different questions and affect how you interpret your results.

If someone curious in attending this course asked you for feedback or advice on it, what would you tell him/her?
I would say ask lots of questions, take advantage of all the great instructors’ expertise, and get plenty of rest before arriving for the course!

What do you like most about your time at CSHL?
I love walking around the campus and taking in the beautiful landscape, it’s a great way to clear my mind and come back to class refreshed and ready to learn.

Thank you to Natasha for being this week's featured visitor. To meet other featured scientists - and discover the wide range of science that takes part in a CSHL meeting or course - go here.

Visitor of the Week: Steven Chen

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Meet Steven Chen of the Indiana University School of Medicine. A third-year PhD student in the Medical Scientist Training Program, Steven is also a member of Yunlong Liu’s lab in the Center for Computational Biology and Bioinformatics. He is on campus for his very first course at CSHL – Advanced Techniques in Molecular Neuroscience – and is considering coming back for the next Genome Informatics meeting.

What are your research interests? What are you working on?
I am interested in the regulation of messenger RNA splicing by RNA-binding proteins in the brain. I am taking an informatics approach to understand these splicing mechanisms that affect posttranscriptional processes.

How did you decide to make this the focus of your research?
I have been interested in RNA processing since my time in Amy Gladfelter’s lab when she was at Dartmouth College. We studied how cells are organized in time and space, specifically how RNA transcripts are trafficked and partitioned within the cell. As my interests developed during undergrad, I became more interested in genomics and how they can inform new hypotheses on molecular mechanisms. With the advent of RNA sequencing, we can now profile thousands of splicing profiles at once. I have made my focus to study RNA processing in the brain since it is particularly enriched in posttranscriptional regulation.

How did your scientific journey begin?
My scientific journey began as a little kid joining my parents on weekend trips to the lab during their postdocs. To pass the time, I would assist my mom in labeling tubes. During my senior year of high school, I worked in Irina Petrache’s lab studying how e-cigarettes and nicotine can damage lung endothelial cells. I would also shadow Dr. Petrache when she saw chronic obstructive pulmonary disease patients in clinic, and this inspired me to become a physician-scientist.

Was there something specific about the Advanced Techniques in Molecular Neuroscience course that drew you to apply?
I was primarily drawn to the Advanced Techniques in Molecular Neuroscience course by the scientific reputation of the instructors and guest speakers. I knew I was here to learn, and it is a blessing to be able to do so from such great minds. In addition, I had been analyzing data from the techniques taught in the course, and I wanted to be able to design and implement these on my own.

What and/or how will you apply what you’ve learned from the course to your work?
Since I come from a largely computational background, I have already learned a lot about the time and effort it takes to carry out experimental techniques like culturing astrocytes, single nuclei isolation, and making bacterial artificial chromosomes. I have also gained more scientific insight into neuroscience and have learned so much about the role of glia. Furthermore, I have acquired newfound appreciation for the history of how we have accumulated all this knowledge in the field. This will inform my critical thinking in discussions with my colleagues at home.

What is your key takeaway from the course?
The culture of being in Cold Spring Harbor almost magically allows course participants to freely speak about scientific ideas and even question canonical thinking. The people here are so inquisitive – it is almost like an incubator for new theories of molecular neuroscience. The guests come from all over the globe, but we all share a passion for understanding even the most basic of molecular mechanisms. It is a really special place to be at even if only for just two weeks.

If someone curious in attending this course asked you for feedback or advice on it, what would you tell him/her?
I think it is definitely worth the time spent here. You will not only form many new connections but also lifelong friends! But make sure you come prepared to work hard and be challenged in thinking critically (and also maybe with some late nights in the lab).

What do you like most about your time at CSHL?
The people here are awesome! Among the four courses running concurrently, there is always someone new to meet. It is easy to strike up a new conversation since we are all visitors. And we are constantly able to learn new things since everyone comes from a unique (cultural and scientific) background. The (unlimited) food is also great, so I have to control myself sometimes.

In addition to the Eli Lilly - Stark Neurosciences Fellowship in Neurodegeneration awarded to Steven, he received a fellowship from the Helmsley Charitable Trust to cover a portion of his course tuition. On behalf of Steven, thank you to the Helmsley Charitable Trust and Indiana Clinical and Translational Sciences Institute for supporting and enabling our young scientists to attend a CSHL course where they expand their skills, knowledge, and network.

Thank you to Steven for being this week's featured visitor. To meet other featured scientists - and discover the wide range of science that takes part in a CSHL meeting or course - go here.

Visitor of the Week: Dwani Patel

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Meet Dwani Patel of the Medical College of Wisconsin. He is currently in the 2nd year of his PhD training and a 4th year student in the MD/PhD program. He is a member of the Ocular Gene Therapy Lab run by Dr. Daniel Lipinski. Dwani was recently at our Banbury Campus taking part in the Vision: A Platform for Linking Circuits, Perception and Behavior course. The biennially-offered course wrapped up earlier this week and Dwani shared with us his thoughts on his first course at CSHL.

What are your research interests? What are you working on?
My research interests are in developing gene-based therapies to prevent blindness arising from neurodegenerative and retinal vascular diseases. Specifically, my thesis work is focused on developing technologies to enhance the treatment and diagnosis of diabetic retinopathy in the pre-symptomatic stage of disease.

How did you decide to make it the focus of your research?
My overarching goal is to lead a research program that will directly help to improve human health and condition. At the Medical College of Wisconsin, the multi-disciplinary and collaborative cell biology, neurobiology, and vision science training program encouraged me to explore the field of ophthalmology. Here, I found Dr. Lipinski who combines exciting and promising technologies like AAV-based gene therapies and advanced imaging techniques to restore sight and prevent blindness – one of the most feared conditions that affects many in my own family.

How did your scientific journey begin?
My science career began as a Bioengineering student at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. My work was focused on integrating spectroscopy techniques and numerical methods to expand the innovative field of digital molecular pathology for cancer diagnostics. In 2013, I had the opportunity to take part in the Amgen Scholars Program at Washington Univeristy in St. Louis where I studied the molecular basis of Alzheimer’s Disease to identify novel targets for therapy. This program introduced me to the career path of a physician-scientist, and I was intrigued by the opportunity to balance a career in clinical management and translational research.

Was there something specific about the Vision: A Platform for Linking Circuits, Perception and Behavior course that drew you to apply?
A significant portion of my studies prior to taking this course focused more on clinical neuroscience and ophthalmology and less on the biology of vision and neural circuitry. I took this course to fill the gaps in my knowledge and to understand the complexities of vision and higher order sensory processing that extend beyond the eye.

What and/or how will you apply what you’ve learned from the course to your work?
This course has given me a deeper insight into the complexities of the visual circuitry and has taught me that vision impairment is far more complicated than simply being able to see or not. As a physician, the lessons learned will help me set individualized and more meaningful milestones to assess a patient’s improvement in vision. As a scientist, our discussions have given me insight into critical questions that remain to be investigated.

What is your key takeaway from the course?
Understanding visual neuroscience and neural circuitry is an incredibly challenging endeavor. Nevertheless, there has been tremendous progress. Individual groups are taking top-down, bottom-up, computational, physiologic, engineering, and biologic approaches to tackle this important question. The continued success and progress of this project will greatly depend on our ability to come together, compile, share, question, and challenge each other as we did in this course.

If someone curious in attending this course asked you for feedback or advice on it, what would you tell him/her?
This course is an incredibly unique opportunity to sit and live with some of the most profound and accomplished scientists and thinkers in our field. Take every opportunity to ask questions and learn from them.

What do you like most about your time at CSHL?
My favorite part of the course was without a doubt the people. Our course directors Farran Briggs and Joseph Carroll, along with our TA Lindsey Salay, did a phenomenal job organizing the course. The students were also diverse in all respects and this made for very engaging discussions.

Dwani received a scholarship from the National Eye Institute (NEI) to cover a portion of his course tuition. On behalf of Dwani, thank you to the NEI for supporting and enabling our young scientists to attend a CSHL course where they expand their skills, knowledge, and network.

Thank you to Dwani for being this week's featured visitor. To meet other featured scientists - and discover the wide range of science that takes part in a CSHL meeting or course - go here.

Visitor of the Week: Sheenah Bryant

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Meet Sheenah Bryant of Central Michigan University. Sheenah is an adjunct research faculty member in Ute Hochgeschwender’s lab, and a proud single mom and Native American. She is on campus for the Ion Channels in Synaptic and Neural Circuit Physiology course where she has been expanding her expertise in generalized ion channel regulation.

What are your research interests? What are you working on?
I am interested in studying the mechanisms of neural circuit formation in development. I hope to characterize changes inneurons resulting from neural hyperactivity during development, and the changes in neural circuit trajectories that control adult behavior.

How did decide to make this the focus of your research?
My dissertation focused on characterizing individual cell membrane proteins. Near the end of my doctoral work, I was introduced to novel method of neural control during a lightning talk by a member of my postdoctoral PI's lab. Those two minutes inspired me with many fundamental questions about neurons, and even our brain, that could be studied by controlling neural activity using bioluminescence-driven optogenetics. I knew immediately that this was the work I wanted to dedicate my research career to.

How did your scientific journey begin?
I have loved the creative curiosity of science since I was very young.  As a Native American and also a single mother, my path thus far has been filled with challenges of doubt and sacrifice, and great reward. I feel passionately that pursuing my dreams as a developmental neuroscientist will inspire my children and the Native American students I meet throughout my career, to pursue their dreams regardless of how unknown or difficult the journey may seem.

Was there something specific about the Ion Channels in Synaptic and Neural Circuit Physiology course that drew you to apply?
I knew this course would be an intense few weeks of classroom and lab training of powerful techniques for studying the contribution of ion channels to neuron functionality, which is at the core of my research goals. Attending a CSHL course is an amazing opportunity because they bring together experts from all over the world to instruct and lecture.

What and/or how will you apply what you’ve learned from the course to your work?
The research techniques I have learned -- such as cultured cell, tissue slice and in vivo patch-clamp electrophysiology -- has helped me to exploit my expertise of generalized ion channel regulation towards answering questions within the field of neuroscience. Each of these techniques I will need to study the relationship between ion channel activity and behavior of organisms.

What is your key takeaway from the Course?
This course is providing me with a clear understanding of how proper regulation of ion channels enables neural function and circuit formation, and the cutting edge techniques used to study these relationships.

If someone curious in attending the Ion Channels in Synaptic and Neural Circuit Physiology course asked you for feedback or advice on it, what would you tell him/her?
I highly recommend this experience to all students at the beginning of their research careers. In a very short amount of time, I successfully mastered difficult experimental techniques and learned the scientific foundation of my new field of study. I hope to attend several other courses during my postdoctoral training.

What do you like most about your time at CSHL?
The extremely knowledgeable instructors and guest speakers were very kind and excited to be here. It is such a fun and collegial atmosphere, which I'm sure I will take with me to my postdoctoral university.

Sheenah received funding support from her PI’s National Science Foundation (NSF) NeuroNex grant. On behalf of Sheenah, thank you to NSF for supporting and enabling our young scientists to attend training course where they expand their skills, knowledge, and network.

Thank you to Sheenah for being this week's featured visitor. To meet other featured scientists - and discover the wide range of science that takes part in a CSHL meeting or course - go here.