A recently published author in Nature Neuroscience and an NRSA recipient, great things keep happening to Alice! Alice Stamatakis is entering into her 3rd year as a UNC graduate student, and has big plans for her future. Read on to learn more about a day in the lab of one of Dr. Garret Stuber’s most outstanding members and gain insight as to what Stamatakis’ future holds!
(NBIO)-What does your current research focus on?
(AS)-My current research focuses on understanding the neural circuitry involved in reward and aversion. Both reward and aversion are controlled by overlapping neural circuits that often become disrupted in neuropsychiatric disorders such as anxiety disorders and drug addiction. To investigate these neural circuits I use a combination of techniques including in vivo optogenetics, immunohistochemistry, and patch-clamp electrophysiology.
(NBIO)- What type of work in the lab does this entail? Does it require a great amount of work outside the lab?
(AS)- Because our lab takes a systems approach to investigating the neural circuitry involved in neuropsychiatric disorders, the majority of our experiments are conducted in animal models. As far as experiments go, I conduct all of the experiments in the lab. However, I will often read articles or work on presentations outside of lab.
(NBIO)- What kind of hours does your research require? Can you explain a typical day in the lab?
(AS)- I typically work between 50 – 60 hours a week. The majority of this time is spent planning and performing experiments. The experiments we perform in our lab can take anywhere from one day to several weeks to complete. A typical day in the lab often involves running mice through behavioral experiments, stereotaxic surgery to inject viral constructs, performing immunohistochemistry, or performing patch-clamp electrophysiology.
(NBIO)-In July of 2012 you were awarded an NRSA. Can you tell me more about that?
(AS)- National Research Service Awards (NRSAs) are grants awarded by the National Institute of Health to predoctorate students and postdoctorate fellows. These training grants allow the student to pursue research topics that he or she is interested in that the lab may not have funding for. The application of this grant involves writing a research statement that outlines specifically what you want to research, why your research is innovative, and how you will deal with problems you may encounter. I was awarded this grant in June of 2012, and it will fund me for 3 years. Apart from funding my research, the grant will also allow me to travel to domestic and international scientific conferences where I will be able to present my research findings.
(NBIO)-You recently published a paper in Nature Neuroscience. What was this paper about?
(AS)- In July of 2012, Dr. Garret Stuber and I published a paper in Nature Neuroscience entitled “Activation of lateral habenula inputs to the ventral midbrain promotes behavioral avoidance”. Avoiding dangerous or fearful stimuli in the environment is critical for survival across species. However, little is known about how neurons in the brain respond and communicate with each other to produce this behavior. Combining genetic techniques with optical technology, in this paper we used optogenetics to shine light on the neural circuitry involved in avoidance behaviors. We targeted excitatory cells in the lateral habenula, an area of the brain that responds to aversive stimuli. We were then able to measure and control how these neurons communicated with inhibitory neurons in a downstream brain region that is involved in reward processing. We found that if we expose mice to a fearful stimulus, this particular neural circuit is strengthened. When we selectively activated this neural circuit, we found that mice showed robust avoidance-like behaviors to the activation. Collectively, these data suggest that activation of excitatory neurons in the lateral habenula is negatively modulating the midbrain reward system by indirectly silencing reward-processing dopamine cells. Aberrations in normal communication within this circuit could lead to certain neuropsychiatric disorders, such as drug addiction and anxiety disorders.
(NBIO)-What are your plans following your education at UNC?
(AS)- After I graduate from UNC I plan to begin a postdoctorate fellow at another university.
(NBIO)-What recommendations would you give to a student entering your field of study?
(AS)- One of the most beneficial things to do to prepare for graduate school is to do undergraduate research. This will not only give you experience in working in a lab, but also help you determine what areas of science you are most interested in. One of the most important qualities to have when entering this field of study, or any field in science, is a passion for what you are doing, and getting experience in a lab is the easiest way to determine which field of science you are most passionate about.