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Current D-SPAN Awardees

Cohort 5Cohort 4Cohort 3 | Cohort 2 | Cohort 1

2020 D-SPAN Scholars

Cohort 5

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Rylie Hightower
2020 D-SPAN Scholar
F99 Phase: University of Alabama at Birmingham | Sponsor: Matthew Alexander

Rylie Hightower is a New Mexico native and earned her Bachelor of Science in Nursing from New Mexico State University in 2015. Her passion for neuroscience began during a summer research internship at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, WA. As an undergraduate NINDS BRAiN (Building Research Achievement in Neuroscience) Scholar, she was part of the NMSU Falls Lab, helping understand relationships between physical activity, mobility, and risk for falling in older adult populations. She also completed a nursing internship at Memorial Medical Cancer Center in Las Cruces, NM as a nursing research assistant, helping identify patients eligible for clinical trials and administering phase II and III experimental therapeutics. Rylie is currently a PhD candidate in Dr. Matthew Alexander's laboratory at the University of Alabama at Birmingham studying how non-coding RNAs influence the pathological progression of Duchenne muscular dystrophy. Throughout her time as a graduate student, Rylie has been named a UAB Civitan International Research Center Emerging Scholar Award winner, is a former UAB Center for Exercise Medicine trainee, and is a UAB Roadmap Scholar. Rylie's primary research interests include mechanisms of communication between muscle and nerve and plans on pursuing academic research in the field of motor neuron disease.


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Nahdia Jones
2020 D-SPAN Scholar
F99 Phase: Georgetown University | Sponsor: G. William Rebeck

Nahdia Jones is a Ph.D. candidate in the Interdisciplinary Program in Neuroscience (IPN) at Georgetown University. Before joining the IPN, she earned her B.A. in Neuroscience from Boston University where she worked in the laboratory of Dr. Howard Eichenbaum focusing on investigating the effects of transient time cell disruption on memory recall.  At the IPN, she works with Dr. Bill Rebeck in the Laboratory of Aging and Neurodegeneration. Her thesis focuses on understanding the effects a high fat diet (HFD) has on the metabolism and the cognition of Apolipoprotein E (APOE) genotypes. Specifically, Nahdia is researching whether HFD increases metabolic, behavioral, and CNS disturbances and whether these disturbances differ between APOE genotypes and sex.  Her goal is to bridge the gap between the periphery and the CNS and to understand what specific HFD associated peripheral changes lead to CNS deficits. 


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Anisha Kalidindi
2020 D-SPAN Scholar
F99 Phase: The Ohio State University | Sponsor: Karl Obrietan

Anisha Kalidindi completed her B.S. in Biological Science at Emory University. During her time at Emory, she was a fellow in the NIH BP-ENDURE Atlanta Net/work program and worked in the laboratory of Dr. Gretchen Neigh. Currently, she is a Ph.D. candidate in the Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology program at Ohio State University. Upon matriculation Anisha was awarded a University Fellowship and a spot in the Cellular, Molecular, and Biochemical Sciences Program NIH T32 training program.  She currently works in the laboratory of Dr. Karl Obrietan studying the molecular mechanisms governing circadian rhythms. Her thesis work examines the mechanisms of circadian clock disruption in Alzheimer's disease.  


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Kavin Nunez
2020 D-SPAN Scholar
F99 Phase: Brown University | Sponsor: Karla Kaun

Kavin Nunez is a PhD candidate in Molecular Pharmacology and Physiology at Brown University and recipient of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute Gilliam Fellowship. He received his B.S. in Neuroscience from Brown University in 2015, where he first discovered his passion for neuroscience in an introductory course covering a broad array of neuroscience topics. Kavin's dissertation work investigates how an animal's internal state (fear, stress, hunger, etc.) can affect reward and memory processing circuits to motivate behavior. Specifically focusing on how food-deprivation directly modulates reward and memory processing circuits to impact memories for drugs of abuse, particularly alcohol, in Drosophila melanogaster. His research looks across behavior and neural circuits, down to single cell neural dynamics to understand how state-dependent modulation affects behavior. Kavin is also passionate in promoting diversity with inclusion in the sciences, teaching, and an active member of the Brown University SACNAS chapter.


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Ti'Air Riggins
2020 D-SPAN Scholar
F99 Phase: Michigan State University | Sponsor: Erin K. Purcell

Ti'Air Riggins is a current Biomedical Engineering PhD candidate at Michigan State University.  She received her bachelors in Biomedical Engineering from The Ohio State University in 2011 as the first black undergraduate BME student, and proceeded to earn a master's from the University of Cincinnati in 2013.  Her research focus is integrating tissue engineering with implantable electrodes to tune immune response in the brain, in the REIL lab under the direction of Dr. Erin Purcell. She is heavily involved in the BMES, NSBE and is in the speaker's bureau for the Rape And Incest National Network.  She has also served in the community under her platforms of sexual assault awareness and exposing underrepresented students to STEM as Miss Indiana United States 2015 and has received awards for her Social Justice in 2016 and Humanitarianism in 2018.  She was named a fellow in the Society for Neuroscience from 2016-2018. Her future goals include managing her own lab focusing on brain immune response to implantable neurotechnology and being a successful  mentor for students who are underrepresented in neuroscience and engineering. 


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Lester J. Rosario-Rodr­íguez
2020 D-SPAN Scholar
F99 Phase: University of Puerto Rico-Medical Sciences Campus | Sponsor: Sponsor: Loyda M. Meléndez; Co-Sponsors: Valerie Wojna and José A. Lasalde-Dominicci

Lester J. Rosario-Rodrí­guez is a Ph.D. candidate at the Department of Microbiology of the University of Puerto Rico-Medical Sciences Campus. He works in Dr. Loyda M. Meléndez's laboratory which focuses on understanding and developing strategies against HIV-associated neurocognitive disorders (HAND). His thesis is aimed to understand the role of the cannabinoid receptor type 2 (CB2R) activation in cathepsin B neurotoxicity promoted by HIV-infected macrophages. His motivation for science began during high school, where he had the opportunity to represent Puerto Rico at the Intel International Scientific and Engineering Fair 2010. He completed his bachelor's degree in Biology at the University of Puerto Rico, Cayey Campus. As an undergraduate, he was an awardee of the Robert C. Byrd Honors Scholarship and participated in the NIH Research Initiative for Scientific Enhancement (RISE) program. Also, he participated in three summer research internships at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he performed studies of DNA damage, immunology, and virology, respectively. As a graduate student, he was a fellow of Yale Ciencia Academy, a RISE program trainee, and an associate of the Latin American Training Program of the Society for Neuroscience.


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2020 D-SPAN Scholar
F99 Phase: University of Michigan | Sponsor: Henry Paulson

Stephanie Sandoval-Pistorius received her B.S. and M.S. in Neuroscience and minor in Chemistry from Brigham Young University (BYU). While at BYU, Stephanie worked in Dr. Scott Steffensen's laboratory where she studied the neural basis of drug reward and dependence. She entered the neurodegeneration field during her summer in Dr. Judith Walter's lab at the NINDS studying basal ganglia dysfunction in a rodent model of Parkinson's disease. In 2017, Stephanie matriculated in the Neuroscience Graduate Program at the University of Michigan (U of M) where she is a Ph.D. Candidate in Dr. Henry Paulson's laboratory studying protein quality control pathways in Parkinson's disease. Stephanie has received several honors, including an exceptional summer student award from the NIH-NINDS, ECPA and NSP fellowships from SfN, a Rackham Merit Fellowship, and an F31-NRSA fellowship from the NIH-NIA. Stephanie is passionate about increasing inclusivity in academia and works on gender bias and diversity initiatives at U of M. She is an active member of the U of M SACNAS chapter, for which she served as president. Aside from a passion for increasing our understanding of Parkinson's disease, Stephanie is driven to pursue a career as a principal investigator by her desire to inspire future scientists from historically underrepresented backgrounds. 



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Wendy Wenderski
2020 D-SPAN Scholar
F99 Phase: Stanford University | Sponsor: Gerald Crabtree

Within the nucleus of a cell, proteins package the DNA so that only the genes needed by that particular cell are expressed at a given time. Mutations in components of this DNA:protein complex, referred to as "chromatin," are known to cause certain neurological disorders, as well as many cancers. As a Developmental Biology Ph.D. candidate in Dr. Gerald Crabtree's lab at Stanford University, Wendy identified an inherited form of autism caused by mutations in ACTL6B, which encodes a neuronal-specific subunit of the BAF chromatin remodeling complex. She found that mice lacking this gene exhibit similar brain morphology, behaviors, and neuronal gene expression patterns to the human patients. Notably, patient-derived brain organoids and electrically silenced Actl6b-/-  mouse neurons exhibited transcriptional signatures of neuronal activity, indicating that poor distinction between resting and active states may contribute to autism. Previously, Wendy was a research assistant with Dr. C. David Allis at The Rockefeller University. There, she helped uncover important roles for chromatin mechanisms, including histone turnover and DNA methylation, in regulating gene expression within the developing and adult nervous system. Looking forward, Wendy seeks to understand how chromatin regulators function within specific neuronal circuits to modulate behavior. 


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Cory White
2020 D-SPAN Scholar
F99 Phase: Johns Hopkins School of Medicine | Sponsor: Michael Wolfgang

Cory White is a Ph.D. candidate in the Biochemistry, Cellular & Molecular Biology Graduate Program at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in the laboratory of Michael Wolfgang, Ph.D. Originally from metro Atlanta, he earned his B.S. summa cum laude in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology from Mercer University and participated in undergraduate summer research experiences at the University of Kentucky where he first developed an interest in neuroscience while training with Matthew Gentry, Ph.D. His work in the Wolfgang laboratory, in the Center for Metabolism and Obesity Research, is a combination of neuroscience and metabolic biochemistry. In his dissertation work, Cory evaluates brain lipid bioenergetics and cellular responses in the brain to metabolic cues. He is invested in initiatives and organizations that mentor, support, and advocate for underrepresented trainees at Hopkins. Specifically, Cory serves as a peer mentor for the Hopkins NIH-funded Post-baccalaureate Research Education Program and served as vice president of programming for the Biomedical Scholar's Association. Furthermore, Cory was a co-organizer for the inaugural Hopkins Excellence in Diversity Symposium and several Second Look Visits for Accepted Underrepresented Students. Based on his efforts, Cory has been awarded a NRSA F31 fellowship and named a SfN Neuroscience Scholars Program fellow.


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Jamal Williams
2020 D-SPAN Scholar
F99 Phase: Princeton University | Sponsor: Kenneth Norman

Jamal Williams is a Ph.D. candidate in neuroscience at Princeton University currently being advised by Dr. Kenneth Norman and co-advised by Dr. Uri Hasson and Dr. Elizabeth Margulis. Jamal uses neuroimaging and computational modeling to investigate the neural mechanisms underlying the complex relationship between music and memory. He received his B.A. in Psychology from the University of Memphis where he used artificial intelligence, computational modeling, and music to understand patterns of learning in humans. During the F99 phase of the award, Jamal will use fMRI to investigate how repeated musical themes in a film score shape viewers' memory for the film. Jamal plans to extend this type of research to different sub-populations such as infants and also across cultures, to better understand how music-related memory for real-world events develops within and across brains. Jamal hopes that his work will help guide music-based interventions in the classroom as well as in populations suffering from neurodegenerative disorders.


2019 D-SPAN Scholars

Cohort 4

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Kenneth Amaya
2019 D-SPAN Scholar
F99 Phase: Dartmouth College | Sponsor: Kyle Smith

Kenneth Amaya completed his B.A. in Neuroscience with honors at Dartmouth College where he worked on striatal cholinergic contributions to motivated action in the lab of Dr. Kyle Smith. He was awarded a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship and returned to Dartmouth as a Ph.D. candidate working with Dr. Smith in the Psychological and Brain Sciences (PBS) department. His current work examines the neural bases of habit formation and maintenance and incorporates various methodologies including optogenetics, DREADDs, and in vivo electrophysiology. Kenneth deeply values the graduate experiences of his peers and has dedicated significant amounts of time to the development and success of the PBS Building Inclusivity for the Advancement of Science (PBS BIAS) group where he currently serves as co-president.


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Joy Franco
2019 D-SPAN Scholar
F99 Phase: Stanford University | Sponsor: Miriam Goodman

Joy is a Ph.D. candidate studying mechanosensory neurons under Miriam Goodman, at Stanford University, with co-advisement from Beth Pruitt at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She discovered her passion for neuroscience while attending community college after learning of neurally-interfaced prosthetics. After transferring to San José State University, Joy was accepted to the MARC U*STAR program and began studying mechanosensation in muscle spindle afferents in Katherine Wilkinson’s neurophysiology lab. After beginning her graduate studies at Stanford, Joy rotated in the Stanford Microsystems Lab with Beth Pruitt, gaining exposure to the broader fields of mechanobiology and biofabrication. Joy chose to apply what she learned from Dr. Pruitt to the system of interest in Dr. Goodman’s lab: the touch receptor neurons (TRNs) of the roundworm C. elegans. Her formal training in mechanical engineering, both as an undergrad and graduate student, allows Joy to work at the interface of mechanics and neurobiology. Her dissertation research is focused on understanding the role that extracellular mechanics play in the function of TRNs. She hopes to one day study this phenomenon in central neurons following traumatic brain injury and in various disease states.


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Javier How
2019 D-SPAN Scholar
F99 Phase: University of California, San Diego | Sponsor: Saket Navlakha, Co-sponsor: Sreekanth Chalasani

Javier How received his B.S. in Biological Sciences from Florida International University in 2015. He then began graduate school at the University of California, San Diego, where he works with Drs. Saket Navlakha and Sreekanth Chalasani at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies. He studies how the interactions between neurons in the small nervous system of the nematode Caenorhabditis elegans change in response to ecologically-relevant aspects of chemical stimuli. He plans to improve and extend his approach to the study of larger neural systems for the K00 Phase.



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Jasmine Kwasa
2019 D-SPAN Scholar
F99 Phase: Carnegie Mellon University | Sponsor: Barbara Shinn-Cunningham

Jasmine Kwasa is a Ph.D. student in Electrical and Computer Engineering at Carnegie Mellon University and from the South Side of Chicago. She earned her B.S. from Washington University in St. Louis and her M.S. from Boston University, both in Biomedical Engineering. Her work merges engineering, cognitive science, and neuroimaging with the aim of discovering quantitative, non-invasive measures of behavioral phenomena in human cognition. Her thesis project uses spatial selective attention paradigms, high-density electroencephalography (EEG), and machine learning to investigate neural correlates of top-down control in young adults with attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Jasmine comes from a long line of public school teachers and was familiar with the achievement and exposure gaps in American education in childhood. Consequentially, outside of the lab, Jasmine conducts research on teaching and learning and has previously led and developed STEM education programs for underrepresented K12 students, particularly young women from underrepresented backgrounds and low-income families. Jasmine has received several honors throughout graduate school, including being named an NSF GRFP, a Ford Foundation Fellow, and a “Rising Star” in Biomedical Science by MIT. In her free time, Jasmine is a dance fitness instructor and enjoys travel and time with her family.


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Sofia A. Lopez
2019 D-SPAN Scholar
F99 Phase: University of Michigan | Sponsor: Shelly B. Flagel, Co-Sponsors: Robert Kennedy and James Herman

Sofia A. Lopez, a native of El Paso/Cd. Juárez, received her B.S. in Psychology with a minor in Biology from the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) in 2014. Her behavioral neuroscience research experience began by participating in the NIH Research Initiative for Science Enhancement (RISE) program at UTEP working under the mentorship of Dr. Edward Castañeda. In 2015, Sofia matriculated at the University of Michigan to pursue a doctoral degree in neuroscience, and in 2016 she became the recipient of a National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP) award. Sofia is currently a doctoral candidate and a member of Dr. Shelly Flagel’s lab. Her dissertation work aims to elucidate the interaction between stress- and reward-mechanisms mediating individual differences in cue-motivated behaviors. Her long-term goal is to become an independent scientist with a research program focused on understanding the neurobiology of motivated behavior. She is particularly interested in uncovering the neural mechanisms by which one is deemed vulnerable or resilient to psychopathology.


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Esteban Lucero
2019 D-SPAN Scholar
F99 Phase: University of Colorado Denver Anschutz Medical Campus | Sponsor: Huntington Potter, Co-Sponsor: Heidi Chial

Esteban Lucero is a Ph.D. candidate in the Human Medical Genetics and Genomics program at the University of Colorado Denver Anschutz Medical Campus (CU-AMC). He earned his B.S. in Biology from New Mexico State University (NMSU). At NMSU, he participated in the BRAiN Program, which is supported by the Blueprint ENDURE initiative. He worked in the laboratory of Dr. Tim Wright where he investigated changes in neuronal gene expression in avian vocal learners in response to different social environments and how gene expression levels correlate with vocal learning. He also received a Smithsonian Institute Minority Internship Award allowing him to study at the Smithsonian Institute Center for Conservation and Evolutionary Genomics on a project that mapped and characterized the genomic diversity of a specific population of endangered San Joaquin kit fox. At CU-AMC, he works with Dr. Huntington Potter and is a member of the Rocky Mountain Alzheimer’s Disease Center and the Linda Crnic Institute for Down Syndrome. His project is focused on identifying novel targets for treatment of Alzheimer’s disease (AD) by understanding the molecular mechanisms underlying cognitive dysfunction associated with AD pathology. Specifically, Esteban is investigating the microtubule motor protein Kinesin-5 and its role in maintaining cognitive function.


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Alexander Riordan
2019 D-SPAN Scholar
F99 Phase: Princeton University | Sponsor: David Tank

The merging of mathematical theory, experiment, and methods development revealed the ionic basis of the action potential and ushered in modern neuroscience. Alexander Riordan's long-term goal is to follow this interdisciplinary tradition, albeit in a modern context: to understand how neurons form circuits that enable the complex activity patterns underlying cognition. Currently Riordan is pursuing this goal as a Ph.D. candidate with David Tank at Princeton University. His thesis combines imaging technologies to test circuit models of memory and navigation. Previously, he has co-developed machine learning methods for cell detection in collaboration with Sebastian Seung, circuit models of cognitive flexibility with Carlos Brody, and nonlinear dynamical models of odor-tracking with Nathan Urban and Bard Ermentrout. His experimental work with Jan Thornton explored therapeutic roles of hormones in schizophrenia. Riordan received a bachelor's degree in mathematics from Oberlin College, and a master's in neuroscience from Princeton University.


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Raele Robison
2019 D-SPAN Scholar
F99 Phase: University of Florida | Sponsor: Emily Plowman

Raele Robison is a Ph.D. candidate in the Rehabilitation Sciences and Disorders program at the University of Florida, where she is enrolled in the bulbar track studying aerodigestive function in neurodegenerative diseases. Prior to her doctoral studies, Raele completed a B.A. degree in Communication Sciences and Disorders at West Chester University in 2013 and a M.S. degree in Speech-Language Pathology at the University of South Florida in 2015. During her time as a Master’s student, Raele completed a thesis investigating lingual resistance training in individuals with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) under the direction of Dr. Emily Plowman. Through her work on this project, Raele became interested in the further pursuit of research experiences, and thus elected to begin doctoral studies at UF under the continued mentorship of Dr. Plowman. Raele’s current research is broadly focused on understanding the dysregulation of homeostatic mechanisms as they pertain to swallowing function. Raele’s dissertation will focus on homeostenosis of lingual functional reserve and its impact on the ability of patients to produce lingual pressure and maintain swallowing function. In her future research, Raele will investigate perturbations to homeostasis across multiple body systems to understand their potential contribution to swallowing dysfunction in vulnerable patient populations.


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Maureen Sampson
2019 D-SPAN Scholar
F99 Phase: University of California, Los Angeles | Sponsor: David Krantz

Maureen is a Ph.D. candidate in Molecular Toxicology at UCLA and works in the laboratory of Dr. David Krantz. Maureen uses genetic approaches to study serotonergic neuromodulation in the Drosophila melanogaster visual system. Serotonin receptors are expressed throughout the optic lobe and Maureen has identified neuromodulation points in specific neurons and visual processing pathways. Serotonin signaling modulates visually induced calcium transients in L2 neurons, which are at the head of the light-OFF visual pathway. Maureen is currently examining how acute and chronic increases in serotonergic signaling modulate visual processing and alter single cell transcriptomes in this circuit. Maureen received her B.S. in Biochemistry from Chatham University in 2009 then joined the Volatile Organic Compounds Laboratory at the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). At the CDC, Maureen quantified toxicants in biological (e.g., human blood) and environmental samples (e.g., tobacco smoke) to support national and regional exposure investigations. Maureen’s long-term plans are to study developmental toxicology with a focus on early life disruption of neuromodulatory systems.


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Andrea Silva-Gotay
2019 D-SPAN Scholar
F99 Phase: University of Massachusetts Amherst |Sponsor: Heather N. Richardson, Co-Sponsor: Sandra L. Petersen

Andrea Silva-Gotay is a Ph.D. candidate in the Neuroscience and Behavior Program at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She received her B.S. in Chemistry from the University of Puerto Rico (UPR)-Rio Piedras campus while conducting research at the UPR Medical Sciences Campus under the mentorship of Dr. Jennifer Barreto-Estrada. As part of the NIH Blueprint ENDURE Program, NeuroID, her undergraduate research focused on the effects of anabolic androgenic steroids on social behavior during puberty. She is currently working with Dr. Heather Richardson examining how alcohol consumption during pubertal development affects myelination. Her dissertation work has mainly focused on sex differences in neuroinflammatory mechanisms that could exacerbate alcohol-induced myelin damage. Her long-term research goal is to investigate the contribution of neuroimmune cells to neuroadaptations induced by alcohol exposure during adolescence and how these changes may be driving risk for alcohol use disorder later in life.


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Brandon J. Woods
2019 D-SPAN Scholar
F99 Phase: Harvard Medical School | Sponsor: David Van Vactor

Brandon J. Woods is a Ph.D. candidate at Harvard Medical School (HMS) with long-standing passion for biological research. Mr. Woods embarked upon his scientific journey as an undergraduate researcher at the University of California, Davis where he studied epigenetic origins of Autism-Spectrum Disorders. As a master’s student at San Francisco State University, he pursued new scientific interests on the frontiers of developmental biology and regenerative medicine. He conducted his master’s thesis with Dr. Yerem Yeghiazarians, which focused on the regenerative capacity of endogenous stem cell populations for tissue repair. As a current Ph.D. candidate with Dr. David Van Vactor at HMS, Mr. Woods became fascinated by the nervous system’s ability to mediate adaptive responses to changing environmental and behavioral states. For mechanistic exploration of this phenomenon, he uses the Drosophila neuromuscular junction to understand how neurons and their targets adapt highly specialized and complementary synaptic morphologies in response to neural activity. On the molecular level, Mr. Woods is interested in the regulatory contribution of microRNAs, and their downstream targets, in synaptic morphogenesis.


Cohort 3

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Hector Arciniega
2019 D-SPAN Scholar
F99 Phase: University of Nevada Reno | Sponsor: Marian E. Berryhill
K00 Phase: Brigham and Women's Hospital | Sponsor: Martha Shenton

Hector Arciniega received his Bachelor of Science in Neuroscience from the University of Nevada, Reno. While an undergraduate student, he worked with Dr. Marian Berryhill studying the neural correlates of visual working memory and attempting to identify executive function deficits in people with a history of concussions. Hector also worked with Dr. Anne Leonard studying bee behavior associated with pollen and nectar foraging. Currently, Hector is a PhD candidate at the University of Nevada, Reno. His central research question is to understand working memory deficits in special populations. His research program is centered on a translational approach as part of his long-term goal is to develop interventions to mitigate cognitive impairment. Hector’s dissertation project investigates the time course of recovery and degree of rehabilitation from concussion using behavioral, neuropsychological, EEG, and rs-fMRI approaches.


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Sikoya Ashburn
2019 D-SPAN Scholar
F99 Phase: Georgetown University | Sponsor: Guinevere Eden
K00 Phase: University of North Carolina Chapel Hill | Sponsor: Jessica Cohen

Sikoya M. Ashburn began her venture as a cognitive neuroscientist at Duke University where she graduated with a B.S. in Neuroscience and B.A. in Spanish. While at Duke, she volunteered as a research assistant in behavioral neuroscience and cognitive neuroimaging labs. Before matriculating into the Interdisciplinary Program in Neuroscience at Georgetown University, she worked as a research assistant for an Alzheimer’s Disease (AD) study with the goal of using fMRI to find a novel biomarker for AD under the direction of Dr. Xiong Jiang. At this time, she was also a MRI technician for the Center of Functional Magnetic Imaging with Dr. John VanMeter. Presently as a doctoral candidate under the mentorship of Dr. Guinevere Eden, Sikoya studies the cerebellum’s involvement in higher cognitive functions. Specifically, she uses a combination of functional activation and connectivity to test potential cerebellar involvement in children with co-morbid reading (dyslexia) and math (dyscalculia) disabilities. She plans to continue using neuroimaging methods to elucidate the cerebellum’s involvement in other developmental and learning disorders, which may then be used to redefine current interventions. Sikoya also shares her passion for science by leading partnered outreach programs in grade schools and by teaching anatomy labs on campus.


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John Del Rosario
2019 D-SPAN Scholar
F99 Phase: Rutgers Biomedical and Health Sciences-New Jersey Medical School | Sponsor: Tibor Rohacs

John Del Rosario received his Bachelor’s and Master’s of Science in Biology with a focus on Neuroscience from The City College of New York, where he was involved in identifying the cell death mechanisms that regulate the degenerative process of neurons in a C.elegans model of excitotoxity. After completion of his Master’s studies, he joined the School of Graduate Studies (SGS) at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, where he is currently a Ph.D. Candidate in Biomedical Sciences. Under the mentorship of Dr. Tibor Rohacs in the department of Pharmacology, Physiology and Neuroscience, John’s Ph.D. thesis focuses on elucidating the molecular and cellular pathways that modulate the activity of mechanically activated (MA) Piezo2 channels. Specifically, John aims to identify the role that G-protein coupled receptor signaling and Ca2+-sensitive pathways play in the regulation of MA Piezo2 channels. John’s long-term goal is to investigate the cellular and molecular mechanisms that affect mechanosensation (a process primarily mediated by Piezo2 channels) during chronic pain.


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Leland Fleming
2019 D-SPAN Scholar
F99 Phase: University of Alabama at Birmingham| Sponsor: Kristina Visscher

Leland Fleming is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Neurobiology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB).  Leland earned his bachelor’s degree in Neuroscience from Baylor University in 2013, before going on to complete a post-baccalaureate fellowship at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute. From there, he moved on to join the Graduate Biomedical Sciences program at UAB in 2015, where he works under the mentorship of Dr. Kristina Visscher. In the Visscher lab, his work focuses on understanding the nature of plasticity in the adult brain following sensory loss. Specifically, he is investigating how loss of visual input in macular degeneration impacts the organization of brain networks that process visual information. His goal is to continue studying brain network plasticity in healthy functioning, aging, and neurological diseases.


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Oscar Mendez
2019 D-SPAN Scholar
F99 Phase: University of Arizona | Sponsor: Anita Koshy

Oscar Mendez completed his undergraduate degree from the University of California, Irvine. He was part of the MARC program and worked as a technician in the laboratory of Dr. Aileen Anderson defining how complement proteins modulate neurite outgrowth. After working as a technician, he joined the Neuroscience program at the University of Arizona. Now as a Ph.D. candidate in the laboratory of Dr. Anita Koshy, Oscar is defining the Toxoplasma gondii-brain interactions at the neuroanatomic and physiological level. He aided in the development of a semi-automated quantification program to localize and track neurons that have interacted with Toxoplasma. From these initial findings he is now implementing whole cell patch-clamping to determine if injection of Toxoplasma effector proteins is sufficient to alter the electrophysiology of medium spiny neurons. Given Oscar’s research background, he has developed an interest in utilizing various model systems to determine if specific immune molecules are used in certain neurodevelopmental stages across various organisms.


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Candler Paige
2019 D-SPAN Scholar
F99 Phase: University of Texas-Dallas | Sponsor: Theodore Price

Candler Paige is a doctoral candidate in the Cognition and Neuroscience Program at the University of Texas at Dallas where her dissertation research focuses on the neurobiology of pain. She earned her bachelor’s degree from the University of South Carolina where her undergraduate research examined potential gene therapies to combat opioid tolerance in chronic pain patients. After graduating, Candler spent a year at Clemson University before joining the lab of Dr. Alfonso Romero-Sandoval as a lab manager at the Presbyterian College School of Pharmacy. Her research in the Romero-Sandoval lab focused on the use of nanoparticles for targeted gene delivery in post-surgical pain patients. Candler started her doctorate in the lab of Dr. Theodore Price in 2015. Her current dissertation research focuses on the sex-differences underlying the transition from an acute to chronic pain state. In the future Candler plans to continue her research using RNA sequencing and computational methods to uncover novel pharmacological targets for chronic pain.


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Ciorana Roman Ortiz
2019 D-SPAN Scholar
F99 Phase: Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai | Sponsor: Roger L. Clem

Ciorana Roman Ortiz is a Ph.D. candidate in the Neuroscience Department at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. She obtained her B.S. in Health Sciences from the University of Puerto Rico Medical Sciences Campus. During this time, she worked in Dr. Gregory Quirk’s lab characterizing the structures involved in the learning and extinction of active fear responses (avoidance). Currently, Ciorana works in Dr. Roger Clem’s laboratory where she utilizes molecular and electrophysiological approaches to study how specific GABAergic populations modulate behavior during fear conditioning and extinction, and how changes in inhibitory transmission support these forms of learning. Her research interest is to further understand how neural circuits encode emotional memories and how faulty brain circuits can result in psychiatric disorders.


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Ubadah Sabbagh
2019 D-SPAN Scholar
F99 Phase: Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute | Sponsor: Michael A. Fox

Ubadah Sabbagh is a fourth year Ph.D. candidate in the Translational Biology, Medicine, and Health doctoral program at Virginia Tech. He began his education at a community college in Kansas City, Missouri, and later transferred to the University of Missouri, where he earned a B.S. in Biology with an emphasis on bioinformatics. During this time, he worked with Dr. Gerald Wyckoff to identify potential biomarkers for night eating syndrome using computational biology. Now in the laboratory of Dr. Michael Fox at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at Virginia Tech, Ubadah is focused on mapping the cytoarchitecture and circuitry of the retinogeniculate circuit in the visual thalamus. He uses single cell transcriptomics, molecular and transgenic tools, and trans-synaptic viruses to answer outstanding questions about this important part of the mammalian visual system, the lateral geniculate nucleus. Ubadah is founding chair of the Virginia Tech Carilion Student Outreach Program and has received an NSP Fellowship from the Society for Neuroscience and a Ben Barres Distinguished Performance Award from Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory and the Grass Foundation. Ubadah’s long-term career goal is to become an independent investigator at an R1 university heading a research laboratory that studies the mechanisms guiding neural circuit development and the mechanisms underlying neural injury and regeneration.


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Nihal Salem
2019 D-SPAN Scholar
F99 Phase: Texas A&M University Health Science Center| Sponsor: Rajesh Miranda

Nihal obtained her B.Sc. in pharmaceutical sciences from Ain Shams University, Egypt, and a Master’s degree in Biotechnology from Texas A&M University. During her master’s degree, she joined Dr.  Rajesh Miranda’s laboratory where she developed a passion for studying the intersection of alcohol use disorders (AUDs), pregnancy and developmental disabilities including fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASDs). Her Ph.D. research in Neuroscience under Dr. Miranda’s mentorship focuses on understanding the biology of long non-coding RNAs as mediators of ethanol’s effects on neural stem cells. Nihal is also interested in the analysis of complex data and is pursuing a concurrent certificate in Statistics, to develop statistical models for risk and resiliency factors that modify birth outcomes in human populations. Her Career goal is to make a difference in the lives of individuals who suffer from AUDs. Her graduate training emphasized the insight that behind every child with an FASD is an adult with unmet mental health needs that lead to risky patterns of alcohol consumption or AUDs. Therefore, preventing FASD requires preventing risky alcohol consumption in adults. In her postdoctoral research, she will study adult alcoholism and plans to develop novel therapeutic approaches to prevent risky alcohol consumption.


Photo of Natalia Velez

Natalia Velez
2019 D-SPAN Scholar
F99 Phase: Stanford University | Sponsor: Hyowon Gweon
K00 Phase: Harvard University | Sponsor: Samuel Gershman, Co-Sponsor: Firey Cushman

Natalia Vélez is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Psychology at Stanford University. Natalia is broadly interested in how humans vicariously explore costs and rewards within their environment by observing other people’s actions and by reasoning about the unobservable mental states that gave rise to them, such as others’ preferences, goals, and beliefs. Her dissertation research with Drs. Hyowon Gweon and Jamil Zaki combines functional neuroimaging and computational models of social cognition to characterize the neural computations that enable humans to use such mental state inferences to make decisions that benefit themselves and others. Natalia received her B.S. in Brain & Cognitive Sciences from MIT and is the recipient of the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship. Outside of the lab, Natalia is passionate about communicating and teaching neuroscience and has received several awards for her teaching, including the Zimbardo Prize for Inspiring Teaching in Introductory Psychology and the Stanford Centennial Teaching Prize.


2018 D-SPAN Scholars

Cohort 2


Ismail Ahmed Headshot

Ismail Ahmed, PhD
2018 D-SPAN Scholar
F99 phase: University of Pennsylvania | Sponsor: Feng Gai, Co-Sponsor: Virginia Lee
K00 Phase: New York University | Sponsor: Robert Froemke

Ismail Ahmed did his undergraduate studies at The City College of New York where he studied Biochemistry and carried out research in protein design as an NIH MARC scholar. After graduation, Ismail spent a gap year before graduate school as an NIH PREP scholar in structural biology and biochemistry research at Case Western Reserve University. Ismail is currently recently completed his Ph.D. at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biophysics. Ismail’s dissertation work focused on the development and use of unnatural amino acids as spectroscopic probes for biological spectroscopy and microscopy. Recently, Ismail and his colleagues designed the smallest visibly fluorescent amino acid which was inspired to be a compliment to when fluorescent proteins are too big. Given Ismail’s diverse scientific background, he embarks on a career to study the brain using a multidisciplinary approach which lies at the interfaces of classical neuroscience and chemical-biology. This Fall, he will start his postdoctoral work at New York University in the laboratory of Robert Froemke, where he will study how the neuropeptide, oxytocin modulates social behavior.


Yanair Alonso Caraballo

Yanaira Alonso Caraballo
2018 D-SPAN Scholar
F99 Phase: University of Michigan at Ann Arbor | Sponsor: Carrie Ferrario, Co-Sponsor: Jill Beckerc
K00 Phase: McLean Hospital/Harvard University | Sponsor: Elena Chartoff

Yanaira Alonso-Caraballo completed a bachelor’s degree in biomedical sciences at the University of Puerto Rico at Ponce, where she was part of the Research Initiative for Scientific Enhancement (RISE) program. The following year she conducted research in the lab of Dr. Jill Becker through the University of Michigan Post-baccalaureate Research Education Program (PREP) in Ann Arbor. She is now a Ph.D. candidate in the Neuroscience Graduate Program at the University of Michigan under the mentorship of Dr. Carrie Ferrario. Her studies combine behavioral, biochemical, and electrophysiological approaches to understand how ovarian hormones influence motivation and the potential role of diet-induced glutamatergic plasticity in the nucleus accumbens of female rats. Her long-term career goal is to lead a successful research program that tackles fundamental questions about the neurobiology of motivation in females. She is deeply committed to mentorship, and to sustaining and advancing diversity in STEM education. To that end, she is a founding member of the University of Michigan chapter of the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS) and the outgoing Vice-President. 


Abraham Beyene Headshot

Abraham Beyene, PhD
2018 D-SPAN Scholar
F99 Phase: University of California Berkeley | Sponsor: Markita Landry, Co- Sponsor: Linda Wilbrec
Group Leader, HHMI Janelia Research Campus

Abraham Beyene is a fifth-year graduate student in chemical and biomolecular engineering at University of California, Berkeley. Abraham received his undergraduate degree in chemical engineering from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, where he was a Meyerhoff and MARC scholar. After receiving his undergraduate degree, Abraham worked as a chemical engineer for ExxonMobil before returning to graduate school in 2015. In graduate school, Abraham became interested in developing novel fluorescent tools for applications in neurobiology. His graduate thesis work with Professor Landry is focused on developing near infrared fluorescent and nongenetically encoded probes for neuromodulators. In addition to new tool development, he is interested in applying the tools he develops to investigate the neurobiology of modulatory neurotransmitters such as biogenic amines and neuropeptides. In 2019, Abraham accepted a position as group leader at Janelia Research Campus of Howard Hughes Medical Institute. His lab, which will open in February 2020, will focus on development and application of tools that fluoresce in the near infrared range of the spectrum to study brain neurochemistry.


Jose Cano Headshot

Jose Cano
2018 D-SPAN Scholar
F99 Phase: University of Texas El Paso | Sponsor: Karine Fenelon, Co-Sponsor: Michael Kenney
K00 Phase: University of Rochester Medical Center | Sponsor: Steven Goldman

Born and raised in the US-Mexico borderland, Jose C. Cano first attended school in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. He then completed a B.Sc. in Biology at the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP). Currently, Jose is a Ph.D. candidate in the Biological Sciences Program with a focus in neuroscience at UTEP, and working at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Under the mentorship of Dr. Karine Fénelon, Jose investigates neural substrates and pathways underlying sensorimotor gating, a pre-attentive processing mechanism, using electrophysiological recordings and optogenetic manipulations in mice. His research interests include further understanding neural substrates and cellular mechanisms dysregulated in neurological disorders affecting the Hispanic population, such as schizophrenia and generalized anxiety disorders. In May of 2018, he was awarded an NIH Blueprint Diversity Specialized Predoctoral to Postdoctoral Advancement in Neuroscience (D-SPAN) Award (F99/K00).


Rose Creed Headshot

Rose Creed
2018 D-SPAN Scholar
F99 Phase: University of Alabama at Birmingham | Sponsor: Matthew Goldberg, Co-Sponsor: Lori McMahon
K00 Phase: University of California, San Francisco | Sponsor: Alexandra Nelson

Rose Creed completed her undergraduate degree at Stetson University where she received a bachelor’s of science in Biology. While there she participated in many research opportunities including an NSF REU fellowship at Duke University with Dr. Warren H. Meck. In pursuit of a doctoral degree, she joined the Neuroscience Graduate Program at the University of Alabama at Birmingham in the fall of 2014 and started studying genetic models of Parkinson’s disease in the laboratory of Matthew S. Goldberg the following year. After becoming proficient in a myriad of technical approaches, she decided to explore the role of alpha synuclein in PINK1-linked PD pathogenesis. While designing and planning experiments to understand alpha synuclein’s importance in PINK1-linked PD, she decided to assess potential functional changes using striatal electrophysiology under the additional mentorship of Dr. Lori L. McMahon. During the graduate career, Rose has been involved in enhancing the graduate experience of her peers by participating in several committees, such as year-end assessment and neurobiology student seminar selection committees. Additionally, she has an active role in the NINDS R25-funded UAB Roadmap Scholars Program where mentors other Neuroscience graduate students. 


Valerie Estela Headshot

Valerie Estela
2018 D-SPAN Scholar
F99 Phase: Brown University | Sponsor: Rebecca Burwell

Valerie Estela got her Bachelor’s of Science in biology from Lehigh University. While there, she worked in the lab of Dr. Murray Itzkowitz studying the influence of female size on male aggression and mate preference in the convict cichlid, Amatitlania nigrofasciata. Following graduation, Valerie worked at WIL Research, a contract research organization, conducting preclinical trials within their Developmental and Reproductive Toxicology department for several years. There she studied the impact of drugs and chemicals on fertility, reproduction, and development, especially neurological development. Valerie is currently a graduate student in Dr. Rebecca Burwell’s lab at Brown University, where she studies learning and memory using in vivo electrophysiology in rats during a spatial memory task, specifically targeting the hippocampal and parahippocampal cortices. Using these techniques, she aims to shed light on how the postrhinal cortex participates in encoding contextual environmental information in conjunction with the hippocampus. 


Katherine Eyring Headshot

Katherine Eyring
2018 D-SPAN Scholar
F99 Phase: New York University School of Medicine | Sponsor: Richard Tsien
K00 Phase: University of California, Los Angeles | Sponsor: Dan Geschwind

Katie Eyring is a Ph.D. candidate in New York University’s Neuroscience Institute. Her dissertation research is supervised by Dr. Richard Tsien and focuses on the actions of oxytocin, a behaviorally and clinically relevant neuromodulator, in the hippocampus. Katie obtained her B.A in Neuroscience from Wellesley College in 2014. Katie’s first research experience at Wellesley led her to pursue internships at the National Institutes of Health and Novartis Institutes for BioMedical Research, before joining the graduate program at NYU. While Katie’s scientific projects have ranged from the study of consciousness to developing novel therapies for pancreatic cancer, her current interests are in neuromodulation and social behavior.


Serena Kaye Kinley-Cooper Headshot

Serena-Kaye Kinely-Cooper, PhD
2018 D-SPAN Scholar
F99 Phase: Medical University of South Carolina | Sponsor: DeAnna Adkins
K00 Phase: The Medical University of South Carolina | Sponsor: Catrina Robinson

Serena-Kaye Kinley-Cooper is a graduate student at the Medical University of South Carolina and a graduate of the College of Charleston in Charleston, South Carolina. Serena-Kaye’s doctoral research with Dr. DeAnna Adkins focuses on filling the gap in the current understanding of how brain stimulation can enhance recovery from stroke. This has involved conducting studies that investigate how and when brain stimulation interacts with brain injury and how we can use this understanding to optimize stimulation to enhance functional recovery. Her current research interests focus on answering long-standing questions involving the activated pathways after brain stimulation that produce the improvements seen with concurrent stimulation and rehabilitation.


Tony Larkin Headshot

Tony Larkin
2018 D-SPAN Scholar
F99 Phase: University of Michigan at Ann Arbor | Sponsor: Daniel Clauw, Co-Sponsors: Richard Harris and George Mashour

Tony Larkin is a doctoral candidate in the Neuroscience Graduate Program at the University of Michigan. He received a B.S. in Biology with Honors from Morehouse College in 2013. During this time, under the mentorship of Daniel Hummer, Ph.D., he conducted behavioral neuroscience research, focused on studying the neural mechanism of photic entrainment on circadian rhythms in Syrian Hamsters.  At the Chronic Pain and Fatigue Research Center, he is currently developing skills and training associated with functional connectivity and graph theoretical analyses of data acquired through functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and electroencephalography (EEG). Co-mentored by Richard Harris, Ph.D. and George Mashour, M.D., Ph.D., his graduate work is focused on adopting a network approach to understand how multiple brain regions interact as a complex functional system. Ongoing analyses include identifying network mechanisms of hypersensitivity among chronic pain patients and healthy individuals.


Kristine Lyon

Kristine Lyon
2018 D-SPAN Scholar
F99 Phase: Harvard University | Sponsor: Susan Dymecki

Krissy Lyon is a Ph.D. candidate in the Program in Neuroscience at Harvard University where her dissertation research examines the functional properties and circuitry of a population of dopamine-responsive serotonin neuron central to the modulation of social behavior. Her long-term research interests are to investigate how individual neurons interact in complex neuronal circuits to give rise to social behavior. She received her B.A. from Lewis & Clark College in Portland, OR and is the recipient of the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute Gilliam Fellowship. She is a director of Harvard's Women in Neuroscience group and enjoys teaching for Harvard's Native American High School Summer Program.


Garbriela Manzano Nieves Headshot

Gabriela Manzano Nieves, PhD
2018 D-SPAN Scholar
F99 Phase: Brown University | Sponsor: Kevin Bath, Co-Sponsor: Christopher Moore
K00 Phase: Weill Medical College of Cornell University | Sponsor: Connor Liston

Gabriela Manzano Nieves received a B.S. in Molecular and Cellular Biology from the University of Puerto Rico - Rio Piedras Campus. As an undergraduate she worked in Dr. Gregory J. Quirk’s lab investigating the role of the infralimbic prefrontal cortex in conditioned fear extinction and memory recall. As a graduate student in Dr. Kevin G. Bath’s lab she studies the developmental consequences of early life stress in a mouse model. Early life stress (ELS) is known to significantly impact neuronal development, with implications for cognitive and emotional development. While a great deal of work has focused on the link between ELS and affective development, less is known regarding the mechanisms underlying the relationship between ELS and disturbances in memory function. Knowing when and how ELS affects the development of memory systems will be critical for identifying the impact of memory on behavioral development and elucidating the mechanisms by which childhood experiences alter neuronal circuits. To study the effects of ELS, she uses mice exposed to maternal bedding restriction stress (from P4-P11) and control-reared animals. To assess possible mechanisms and effects of ELS on specific neuronal populations and brain structures she uses a combination of molecular, systems, and behavioral techniques.


Jennifer Martin Headshot

Jennifer Martin, PhD
2018 D-SPAN Scholar
F99 Phase: State University of New York at Buffalo | Sponsor: David Dietz, Co-Sponsor: Fraser Sim
K00 Phase: State University of New York at Buffalo | Sponsor: Zhen Yan

Jennifer A. Martin, Ph.D., is a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Physiology and Biophysics at the State University of New York (SUNY) at Buffalo, in the laboratory of Zhen Yan, Ph.D. Dr. Martin earned her Ph.D. in in Pharmacology at SUNY at Buffalo under the mentorship of David Dietz, Ph.D. Her predoctoral work established a role for oligodendrocyte progenitor cells in regulating heroin-induced behavioral and cellular plasticity in the prefrontal cortex (PFC). Building upon this, Dr. Martin’s postdoctoral research will investigate astrocytic contribution to neuronal plasticity that mediates stress-induced depression. To this end, Dr. Martin will utilize DREADD technology, in vivo electrophysiology, morphological analyses and RNA-sequencing to establish a currently undefined role for astrocytes in mediating neuronal plasticity associated with stress-induced depression.


Monique Mendes Headshot

Monique Mendes
2018 D-SPAN Scholar
F99 Phase: University of Rochester | Sponsor: Anna Majewska

Monique Mendes is originally from Kingston, Jamaica. She received her degree in Biology from the University of Florida. Monique came to the University of Rochester in search of a robust neuroscience program that focused on glial biology and a collaborative environment. In the laboratory of Dr. Ania Majewska, Monique is researching how specific brain cells, microglia, undergo a process called self-renewal. Microglia are the brain’s immune cells and have long been appreciated for their critical roles during brain injury and disease. Recent studies, however, show that microglia maintain brain homeostasis by supporting developing neurons and remodeling neural circuitry during development. Despite their importance in the brain, very little is known about how microglia sustain themselves after they enter the brain during development. Monique’s dissertation research is specifically designed to investigate how molecules, such as P2Y12 (a purinergic molecule that promotes blood clotting) and CX3CR1 (a protein that facilitates immune cell adhesion and migration), affect microglial development and maturation. Using a sophisticated two-photon microscope imaging system, she is tracking microglial renewal dynamics after pharmacological manipulation. The results from this study will significantly expand our understanding of how microglia regulate brain development in both normal and diseased circumstances such as Autism and Schizophrenia.


Stephanie Noble Headshot

Stephanie Noble, PhD
2018 D-SPAN Scholar
F99 Phase: Yale University | Sponsor: Todd Constable, Co-Sponsor: Dustin Scheinost
K00 Phase: Yale University | Sponsor: Dustin Scheinost

Stephanie Noble is a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Radiology and Biomedical Imaging at Yale where she is working on improving fMRI statistical methods and software advised by Dr. Dustin Scheinost. She is part of the state-of-the-art BioImage Suite Web software team co-led by Dr. Scheinost ( Before starting her postdoc, she completed her undergraduate in Chemical Engineering at Princeton, co-founded neuroscience startup goBlue, worked as a technical consultant at Source Signal Imaging (now part of Cortech Solutions), and completed her PhD in the Interdepartmental Neuroscience Program at Yale advised by Dr. Todd Constable. Her PhD work addressed open questions regarding reliability of functional connectivity and sensitivity of fMRI cluster-based inference and has been recognized by a number of awards, including the NSF GRFP and NIH DSPAN F99/K00. In addition to her research, Stephanie is passionate about elevating fellow Latinas and all URMs in STEM and about visual art. 


Chicora Olier Headshot

Chicora Oliver, PhD
2018 D-SPAN Scholar
F99 Phase: Temple University of the Commonwealth | Sponsor: Scott Rawls
K00 Phase:  Nathan Kline Institute/NYU Langone Health | Sponsor: Robert Sears

Chicora Oliver is pursuing a Ph.D. in Neuroscience at Temple University where her research examines chemokine modulation of synthetic cathinones (“bath salts”) and structural plasticity. Chicora discovered research when she was awarded an NIMH Career Opportunities in Research training grant as an undergraduate. Her undergraduate research was conducted at Columbia University and examined PKMζ regulation during memory reconsolidation. After earning a bachelor’s degree from Hunter College, Chicora completed a postbaccalaureate fellowship at the NIH. There she worked with Dr. Jacqueline Crawley on mouse models of autism and with Dr. Elisabeth Murray on economic choice behavior in rhesus macaques. Chicora then entered a Ph.D. program in the Department of Psychology at Temple University. During her second year, Chicora was awarded a NIDA training grant to support her research on substance abuse. So far, Chicora has published nine peer-reviewed articles on her research as an undergraduate, postbaccalaureate fellow, and graduate student. She has also filled many service, teaching, and mentoring roles that promote minority inclusion in scientific research. As a D-SPAN awardee, Chicora will continue gaining the experiences necessary to successfully pursue a career as an independent neuroscience investigator.


Aaron Sampson Headshot

Aaron Sampson, PhD
2018 D-SPAN Scholar
F99 Phase: University of California, San Diego | Sponsor: Terrence Sejnowski
K00 Phase: Johns Hopkins University | Sponsor: Ernst Niebur

Aaron Sampson is a postdoctoral fellow in Dr. Ernst Niebur’s laboratory at Johns Hopkins University. A member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, Aaron was born in Norman, Oklahoma and grew up both there and in Rice Lake, Wisconsin. After completing an undergraduate degree in physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Aaron worked as a research technician in Dr. Patrick Purdon’s laboratory at the Massachusetts General Hospital studying the mechanisms of general anesthesia. During his graduate studies at the University of California San Diego he worked with Dr. Claudia Lainscsek in the laboratory of Dr. Terrence Sejnowski on applying Delay Differential Analysis and related tools to EEG and human intracranial recordings to study the neurophysiology of sleep as well as disorders such a schizophrenia and epilepsy. As a postdoc, he is working with Dr. Niebur as well as Dr. Sridevi Sarma and Dr. Veit Stuphorn to study decision making using complicated multiple-choice tasks with epilepsy patients undergoing intracranial recordings.


Kaela Singleton Headshot

Kaela Singleton, PhD
2018 D-SPAN Scholar
F99 Phase: Georgetown University | Sponsor: Elena Silva
K00 Phase: Emory University | Sponsor: Victor Faundez

Kaela S. Singleton is a fourth year PhD candidate in the Interdisciplinary Program of Neuroscience at Georgetown University (GU). Her research interests lie in understanding the cellular and molecular processes that generate a well-organized and precisely functioning nervous system. As an undergraduate at Agnes Scott College, Kaela was a recipient of the Blueprint Enhancing Neuroscience Diversity through Undergraduate Research Education Experiences (BP-ENDURE) award, allowing her research experiences at Emory, Vanderbilt and Georgia State University. As a graduate student, Kaela’s thesis research investigates how transcription factor function changes both across developmental time and between species. Kaela has won spots on two GU T32s in integrative neuroscience and neural injury and plasticity to further her research endeavors. She has co-authored five scientific manuscripts, presented her research at eight local and national conferences, and continues to be active in the neuroscience community through teaching and outreach. Under the F99/K00 award, Kaela aims to continue her scientific and professional development at GU, and obtain a postdoctoral fellowship at an institution that celebrates diversity, innovative science, and has a history of producing successful independent researchers.


Mario Zubia Headshot

Mario Zubia
2018 D-SPAN Scholar
F99 Phase: University of California, San Francisco | Sponsor: Lily Jan

Mario Zubia is a PhD candidate in biomedical sciences in the lab of Lily Jan at the University of California, San Francisco. His work focuses on investigating the role of TMEM16F, a lipid scramblase, in microglial function in physiology and disease. Specifically, he studies how TMEM16F affects microglial extracellular vesiculation and what effect this has on the propagation of pathogenic proteins in tauopathy. Prior to his graduate studies, he completed a Bachelor of Science in biology from the California Institute of Technology. There, he studied genetic drive systems as a technique to prevent mosquito-borne illnesses, as well as investigated the interaction between the CNS and the immune system in Huntington’s disease. Mario’s research interests lie in exploring neuroinflammation in neurodegeneration and uncovering new therapeutic targets to tackle neurodegenerative disease.

2017 D-SPAN Scholars

Cohort 1

Justin Brantly Headshot

Justin Brantley, PhD
2017 D-SPAN Scholar
F99 Phase: University of Houston | Sponsor: Jose Contreras-Vidal
K00 Phase: University of Pennsylvania | Sponsor: Konrad Kording

Justin Brantley is a Ph.D. student and research assistant in the Laboratory for Noninvasive Brain Machine Interfaces at the University of Houston. He studies able-bodied individuals and lower limb amputees to understand the involvement of peripheral and central nervous signaling in lower limb movements and the effect of limb loss on the brain. He uses simultaneously recorded electroencephalography (EEG), electromyography (EMG), and full body motion capture to study brain, muscle, and kinematic patterns during multi-terrain walking and isolated limb movements. He is using the information to develop a closed-loop brain and muscle based neural-machine interface for the control of a powered lower limb prosthesis. In addition, he is interested in projects at the interface of arts, science, and engineering, and has co-led an investigation into the neural basis of aesthetic stimulation and creativity by evaluating the cortical dynamics of art viewers in an unconstrained non-traditional laboratory environment. Justin was born and raised in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He received a B.S. in mechanical engineering from New Mexico State University and a M.S. in biomedical engineering from the University of New Mexico. In his free time, Justin enjoys rock climbing and the outdoors, experimenting in the kitchen, and playing his guitar. 


Austin Coley Headshot

Austin Coley, PhD
2017 D-SPAN Scholar
F99 Phase: Drexel University | Sponsor: Wen-Jun Gao
K00 Phase: Salk Institute for Biological Studies |Sponsor: Kay Tye

Austin A. Coley is a Ph.D. candidate in Dr. Wen-Jun Gao’s laboratory in the Department of Neurobiology and Anatomy at Drexel University. he received his B.S. from North Carolina Central University and his M.S. from Case Western Reserve University. The laboratory investigates the prefrontal cortex, which is involved in learning, working memory, emotional control and sociability. They aim to understand the molecular and functional underpinnings of psychiatric disorders such as schizophrenia. Austin’s research focuses on postsynaptic density 95 (PSD-95), a highly abundant protein that is involved in excitatory synaptic transmission, synaptic maturation and plasticity in the central nervous system. However, the effects of PSD-95 deficiency on the synaptic function of prefrontal neurons remain unknown. His project aims to explore how the absence of PSD-95 affects synaptic maturation and function, as well as connectivity and function of the prefrontal cortex by using state-of-the-art techniques, including whole-cell patch clamp recordings, western blotting, optogenetic stimulation, and behavioral analysis. These results will provide novel insights on the roles of PSD-95 deficiency in understanding the development of prefrontal cortex and associated neuropsychiatry disorders. 


Serra Favila Headshot

Serra Favila, PhD
2017 D-SPAN Scholar
F99 Phase: New York University | Sponsor: Jonathan Winawer, Co-Sponsor: Brice Kuhl
K00 Phase: Columbia University | Sponsor: Mariam Aly, Co-Sponsor: Josh Jacobs

Serra Favila is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Psychology at New York University, where she studies the neural bases of visual perception and long-term memory. Prior to graduate school, Serra was a research assistant in Dr. Anthony Wagner's lab at Stanford University, where she investigated hippocampal mechanisms supporting memory in younger and older adults. She earned her B.A. in human biology from Stanford in 2011. Serra is broadly interested in how perceptual experiences are transformed into long-lasting, flexible memories and in how these memories are used to guide intelligent behavior. Her dissertation research, supervised by Drs. Jonathan Winawer and Brice Kuhl, uses functional neuroimaging and quantitative models of vision to characterize the neural mechanisms that support these forms of cognition in humans. In the future, she hopes to integrate electrophysiology measurements into her research to understand how memory signals are propagated across cortex on a fine temporal scale.


Nathaniel Harnett Headshott

Nathaniel Harnett, PhD
2017 D-SPAN Scholar
F99 Phase: University of Alabama at Birmingham | Sponsor: David Knight, Co-Sponsors: Farah Lubin, Adrienne Lahti, and Jerzy Szaflarski
K00 Phase: McLean Hospital/Harvard Medical School | Sponsor: Kerry Ressler, Co-Sponsors: Diego Pizzagalli, Milissa Kaufman

Nathaniel G. Harnett, Ph.D., is a postdoctoral fellow in the Neurobiology of Fear laboratory at McLean Hospital, led by Kerry J. Ressler, M.D., Ph.D. Dr. Harnett earned his Ph.D. in psychology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham under the mentorship of David C. Knight, Ph.D. Dr. Harnett’s research investigates the neural mechanisms that mediate susceptibility to trauma and stress-related disorders such as PTSD. To this end, Dr. Harnett leverages multimodal neuroimaging techniques with individuals recently exposed to trauma to elucidate neural circuitry linked to acute and long-term posttraumatic stress. Ultimately, the goal of his research is to develop predictive and preventative neuroscience-based techniques to reduce the prevalence of trauma and stress-related disorders. 


Alex Hendricks Headshot

Alexa Hendricks, PhD
2017 D-SPAN Scholar
F99 Phase: Wake Forest University Health Sciences | Sponsor: Debra Diz

Alexa S. Hendricks is from East Brunswick, New Jersey, and received her bachelor’s degree in biological sciences from Lehigh University, class of 2013, in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. With numerous opportunities to pursue research during her undergraduate studies, she developed an interest in biomedical/translational topics and is pursuing her Ph.D. in neuroscience at Wake Forest University. Alexa’s dissertation investigates adult autonomic dysfunction and hypertension with fetal exposure to betamethasone, a drug commonly used to prevent respiratory distress syndrome in premature infants. Her project uses a sheep model to look at the role of the brain renin angiotensin system and oxidative stress. During her Ph.D., Alexa completed a Master’s in Business Administration from Wake Forest’s Working Professional’s Evening MBA program. In the fall of 2018, Alexa will expand her training in cardiovascular disease at Wake Forest as a postdoctoral fellow studying the cerebrovascular contributions and risk factors in Alzheimer’s disease pathology.


Leana Hernandez Headshot

Leanna Hernandez, PhD
2017 D-SPAN Scholar
F99 Phase: University of California Los Angeles | Sponsor: Mirella Dapretto, Co-Sponsor: Daniel Geschwind
K00 Phase: University of California Los Angeles | Sponsor: Michael Gandal, Co-Sponsor: Andrew Fuligni

Leanna Hernandez is a postdoctoral researcher at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) working with Drs. Michael Gandal and Andrew Fuligni. Her work investigates how genetic and environmental factors impact neurodevelopmental trajectories with a focus on childhood and adolescence. Dr. Hernandez earned her Ph.D. in neuroscience from UCLA under the mentorship of Drs. Mirella Dapretto and Daniel Geschwind. Her dissertation work characterized how genetic risk for autism spectrum disorders (ASD) affects functional brain connectivity and social-emotional behavior in youth with and without ASD. As a postdoctoral researcher, she is investigating the role of the immune system in shaping brain structure during childhood and adolescence and the downstream consequences of genetically conferred immune dysregulation on multiple psychiatric phenotypes (e.g., autism, depression). The overall goal of her work is to contribute to the development of biologically informed interventions targeted to children and adolescents at high-risk for developing mental illness.


Stephanie Herrlinger Headshot

Stephanie Herrlinger, PhD
​2017 D-SPAN Scholar
​F99 Phase: University of Georgia | Sponsor: Jianfu Chen, Co-Sponsors: Amy Merrill, Lee Niswander, and Steven Stice
K00 Phase: Columbia University and Zuckerman Institute | Sponsors: Joseph Gogos and Atilla Losonczy

Stephanie received her Ph.D. in Neuroscience from the University of Georgia under the mentorship of Jian-Fu "Jeff" Chen exploring the impact of Neural Progenitor Cell (NPC) behaviors on brain development and neurodevelopmental disorders. Following concern from the Zika virus epidemic and subsequent increase in microcephaly incidence in affected areas, she developed an in uterointracranial inoculation method to establish a model of Zika virus-induced microcephaly in mice and discovered that the virus causes microcephaly by disrupting NPCs and vascular development. The second major focus of her dissertation was to examine the role of post-transcriptional regulators in brain development whereby she identified that the RNA-binding protein Lin28 drives NPC expansion by promoting mRNA translation, specifically regulating transcripts relevant to ribosome biogenesis, translation initiation, and the cell cycle. At Columbia, Stephanie is working with Joseph Gogos and Attila Losonczy to uncover disrupted biological mechanisms underlying neuropsychiatric disorders. Schizophrenic patients exhibit cognitive deficits including defective episodic memory and working memory and previous work studying a mouse model for 22q11.2 deletion syndrome, the largest genetic known risk for SCZ, indicates that disrupted hippocampal place cell activity may contribute to this pathophysiology. Her collaboration aims to identify the biological processes underlying these deficits in the hippocampus by directly linking changed physiological properties and altered transcriptional activity in hippocampal place cells during goal directed learning in a model for 22q11.2 deletion syndrome.


Nadia Khan Headshot

Nadia Khan, PhD
2017 D-SPAN Scholar
F99 Phase: University of Wisconsin-Madison | Sponsor: Avtar Roopra
K00 Phase: Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai | Sponsor: Tristan Shuman

Nadia Khan is a Ph.D. candidate in cellular and molecular biology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (UW-Madison). She is currently a member of Dr. Avtar Roopra’s lab, where she characterizes the role of a histone modifier named Enhancer of Zeste Homolog 2 (EZH2) in epilepsy. Prior to graduate school, Nadia earned her bachelor’s degree in biology from the University of Texas at Austin and worked as a research scientist at the University of North Carolina Gene Therapy Center with Dr. Steven J. Gray. While at UW-Madison, Nadia has received a number of awards to present her research both in the US and abroad from organizations such as SACNAS, the CURE Epilepsy Foundation, and the UAB Neuroscience Roadmap Scholars program. In 2017, she was inducted into the Edward Alexander Bouchet Graduate Honor Society. Outside of the lab, Nadia is involved in science outreach activities such as being a course instructor for the Pre-Enrichment Opportunity Program for Learning Excellence (PEOPLE) program and is an active member of the SciMed GRS Peer Mentoring Committee. Nadia’s long-term goal is to become a tenured professor at an R1 university and begin her own lab studying the relationship between seizures and the development of neurological disorders.


Keven Laboy Juarez Headshot

Keven Laboy-Juarez, PhD
2017 D-SPAN Scholar
F99 Phase: University of California Berkeley | Sponsor: Daniel Feldman
K00 Phase: Harvard University | Sponsor: Bence Ölveczky

Keven Laboy’s main interests lie in understanding how neural circuits in the brain’s cortex process sensory information. Currently, he uses a combination of electrophysiological and computational tools to determine how neurons in primary somatosensory cortex (S1) represent complex tactile stimuli. His research has shown that S1 neurons provide extremely accurate representations of vibrotactile sequences through precise spike timing and fast sensory integration. He has also shown that S1 neurons preferentially code for Braille-like patterns of tactile stimulation rather than simple point-stimulation. In the future, he will use optical and genetic tools to monitor and manipulate neural circuits during active sensation. His goal is to establish how cortical circuits integrate motor and sensory information to support perception and flexible behavior.


Alberto Lopez Headshot

Alberto Lopez, PhD
2017 D-SPAN Scholar
F99 Phase: University of California-Irvine | Sponsor: Marcelo Wood
K00 Phase: Vanderbilt University | Sponsor: Erin Calipari, Co-Sponsor: Roger Colbran

Alberto Lopez graduated from Duke University in 2011 with a B.S. in Neuroscience. He worked for two years under Dr. Thomas Kash at UNC Chapel Hill studying the neural mechanisms behind anxiety and alcoholism. He began graduate school at UC Irvine in 2013 through the Interdepartmental Neuroscience Program (INP) and joined the Wood Lab later that year. In the Fall of 2018, Alberto will join the Calipari lab at Vanderbilt University as a D-SPAN post-doctoral fellow under Dr. Erin Calipari. Alberto’s research focuses on understanding the neural circuits that drive drug-seeking behavior. Specifically, he is interested in investigating the epigenetic mechanisms that are alter circuit function which, ultimately, underlie relapse behaviors.


Kirsten Schoonover Headshot

Kirsten Schoonover, PhD
​2017 D-SPAN Scholar
F99 Phase: University of Alabama at Birmingham | Sponsor: Rosalinda Roberts
K00 Phase: University of Pittsburgh | Sponsor: David Lewis

Kirsten Schoonover graduated summa cum laude from West Virginia University in 2014 with a B.A. in Psychology and as a member of the Phi Beta Kappa honor society. As an undergraduate, she concurrently worked in several labs studying the similarities of cognitive deficits within unmanaged Type II diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease, the validity of eyewitness testimony in legal trials, and potential neuroengineering based treatments for motor deficits induced by stroke. She then attended the University of Alabama at Birmingham in 2014 to obtain her PhD. During this time, Kirsten studied schizophrenia using postmortem tissue and electron microscopy, and completed her dissertation studying the genetic mechanisms of copper homeostasis and dysbindin abnormalities in schizophrenia. While at UAB, Kirsten has received a number of awards including local winner and regional finalist of the Three Minute Thesis competition, Outstanding Graduate Student in Behavioral Neuroscience, and travel to further her training at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. Furthermore, she has been involved in several scientific outreach activities such Brain Awareness Week and Big Brother Big Sister, and served as the Vice President of the Neuroscience Roadmap Scholars. In the Fall of 2019, Kirsten will join the lab of Dr. David Lewis at the University of Pittsburgh as a D-SPAN postdoctoral fellow. Her research there will focus on postmortem single cell genetics and proteomics as it pertains to the working memory cortical microcircuit in schizophrenia and the related cognitive deficits currently not addressed by today’s antipsychotic medications.


Clarissa Valdez Headshot

Clarissa Valdez, PhD
2017 D-SPAN Scholar
F99 Phase: Northwestern University at Chicago | Sponsor: Dimitri Krainc
K00 Phase: University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center | Sponsor: Marc Diamond

Clarissa Valdez is a postdoctoral researcher at University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. Through a multidisciplinary approach, she is currently investigating mechanisms of tau aggregation and propagation in the laboratory of Dr. Marc Diamond.  Her interests in cellular mechanisms of disease began as an undergraduate at Pomona College where she studied Molecular Biology and was awarded HHMI and Merk-AAAS summer fellowships to pursue her undergraduate thesis research project. As a predoctoral researcher in the laboratory of Dr. Dimitri Krainc at Northwestern University, Clarissa utilized patient iPSC-derived neurons to identify cellular mechanisms driving neurodegeneration in Frontotemporal Dementia (FTD) caused by mutations in progranulin. While at Northwestern, she was also awarded the NIH CLIMB Fellowship and was previously nominated to the T32 Mechanisms of Aging and Dementia Training Grant. Additionally, she was a member of the Committee for Underrepresented Minority (URM) Affairs in the Northwestern Neuroscience PhD program and plans to continue to share her passion for encouraging younger students to pursue careers in STEM.