Written by
Ahmed El Hady
May 17, 2021

2021 has been a great one for the neuroscience program at the Princeton Neuroscience Institute. Seven current PNI and Psychology graduate students have been awarded National Science Foundation (NSF) graduate fellowships and two current students got an honorary mention. Moreover, a previous intern who is currently at Stanford University was awarded an NSF fellowship. They represent the diverse research backgrounds, gender and racial diversity at the Princeton Neuroscience Institute, something key to the success of PNI as an institution. The personal stories always matter and give us insights into the lives of those awarded this prestigious fellowship. In the following, we will delve into the multifaceted research projects that our NSF honored graduate students are working on.

Jess Breda is a graduate student advised by Carlos Brody. She is studying the neural mechanisms of parametric working memory. Her proposed project investigates sensory perception and working memory. Specifically, what role does the auditory cortex play during a parametric working memory task, and is it used for sound memory, or just perception? 

Renee Waters is a Psychology graduate student in the Gould lab, and a former PNI summer intern. She is studying the role of CA2 hippocampal area in social recognition. Her project proposes the use of a combination of techniques including chemogenetic manipulations, electrophysiology and behavioral techniques to investigate the role of CA2 in social behavior.

Ken Igarza is a graduate student at PNI and co-founder of Empowering diversity and Promoting Scientific equity at PNI (EPSP). At the time of the NSF application, he submitted a proposal in collaboration with Dr. Julien Ayroles (EEB) and Dr. Mala Murthy (NEU) looking to combine systems genetics and systems neuroscience methods to investigate variance in addictive behavior in a genetically diverse population of Drosophila melanogaster.

Fred d'Oleire Uquillas is a graduate student co-advised by Jesse Gomez and Sam Wang. His project involves using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and ex vivo study of the human brain to produce longitudinal models relating cerebellar function and microstructure to overall brain development.

Tyler Giallanza is a former PNI summer intern and a current Psychology graduate student advised by Jon Cohen. His project involves using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and computational models to investigate the mechanisms the brain uses to flexibly reorganize information to comply with task-specific demands.

Addie Minerva is a graduate student co-advised by Cate Peña and Ilana Witten. She is planning to examine how the combination of early life and adult stress alters the transcriptional profile of single neurons in reward regions of the brain and how these changes affect in vivo neural activity of these cells in response to social stimuli. This project is unique in integrating typically disparate molecular and systems neuroscience approaches in order to directly link stress-dependent changes in gene expression in molecularly defined neural populations with alterations in social coding following the same stressors. 

Jorge Yanar is another graduate student advised by Carlos Brody. Previous work studying evidence accumulation has yoked the accumulation and motor components together, making it difficult to establish whether observed neural correlates are truly decision-related or simply reflect the preparation to move. Jorge is proposing an evidence accumulation task in which the two are functionally dissociated. Besides allowing him to test whether these neural correlates are truly part of the accumulation process, the task would provide him with a novel platform from which to study abstract decision making in rodents.

Jorge M. Iravedra Garcia is a graduate student in Annegret Falkner's lab. His proposed project is focusing on examining what drives individual variability in aggressive behavior. To this end, as animals acquire aggression experience in a longitudinal behavioral design, he will record from a network of regions known to regulate social behavior, as well as dopamine activity in the nucleus accumbens, using a high-density, multi-site fiber photometry system. Then, he will characterize persistent aggression or the lack thereof by mapping both changes in functional connectivity, and recruitment of dopaminergic neurons.

Sreejan Kumar is graduate student co-advised by Tom Griffiths and Jon Cohen. His project revolves around combining arge-scale online behavior experiments and brain imaging tools with advances in machine learning to drive novel understanding of the human brain. He is interested in applying methodologies/experiments from cognitive science/cognitive neuroscience to understand current AI systems, and combining both of these approaches to work towards creating more human-like artificial intelligence.

Lucas Encarnacion-Rivera is currently a first year Neuroscience PhD student at Stanford. He was an HHMI EXROP fellow at PNI for the summers of 2018 and 2019 in Mala Murthy’s lab and was hired several months thereafter in collaboration with Sebastian Seung to continue work on a connectomics project. He is currently working in the lab of Karl Deisseroth.  His proposed project, broadly, sought to address how perception shapes action. He uses the pup retrieval (PR) response in rodent mothers as a model system for perceptually guided behavior. He aims to address three questions: (1) how do cells in the auditory cortex acquire tuning to pup cries for help following motherhood (2) if he manufactures the percept of a pup cry through precise neural activation, can he induces pup retrieval behavior? And (3) What is the architecture of this perception to action (PR) circuit?  

Upon talking to this extraordinary group of graduate students, they lauded the support of the Princeton Neuroscience Institute administration throughout the application process. They have also helped each other in the preparation of the fellowship applications in a collegial and supportive manner. Many have expressed their overwhelming happiness when they found out that other students from their same cohort got this prestigious NSF fellowship. Others have expressed their relief on getting awarded this fellowship, as it helped them remedy some of the insecurities and uncertainties they were experiencing during the pandemic times.

We wish the awardees the best of luck in their projects.