Ever think that the brain can play tricks? Assistant Professor Karen Zito of the UC Davis neuroscience department knows that it can.
In what sort of research do you get to participate as an assistant professor?
As an assistant professor I am the head of a laboratory, which presently consists of three graduate students, two undergraduate students and one technician … My role in the laboratory is mainly as a mentor, teaching techniques and helping to design and troubleshoot experiments. I also build and fix microscopes.
What are you currently researching in the field of neurobiology?
My laboratory is studying how connections between neurons are formed as the nervous system develops and how these connections are modified during learning and memory.
How do you hope to use your findings?
The improper formation of neuronal connections is thought to be the cause for many neurodevelopmental disorders. We hope that the findings from our research will contribute to development of therapeutics to prevent or cure many devastating neurological and psychiatric disorders.
What impact do you hope your research will have on the general public?
Our research will further the understanding of how the nervous system develops. This understanding could lead to advances in treatments of neurological disorders.
You recently won the “Next Generation Award” for your work with both college and elementary students on neurobiology. How did you feel when you won the award?
I was very excited and quite honored to receive the Next Generation Award from the Society for Neuroscience. My main accomplishment was to initiate and organize the Brain Awareness Week outreach activities here at UC Davis. In addition to visiting local grade schools, we appeared on Capital Public Radio to discuss Brain Awareness Week. We hosted a public outreach seminar that was given by Dr. Ron Mangun, director of the Center for Mind and Brain, and we organized a booth at the Farmers Market that was designed by the undergraduate NPB Club. At that interactive booth, young children were able to make neurons from pipe cleaners and puff balls.
During the Brain Awareness Week that you organized for local schools, what did the students learn?
Elementary students were given an introduction to brain structure and function via a comparative display of brains from mouse, rat, squirrel, opossum and macaque. They were given a demonstration of visual illusions and brain fact sheets were distributed for the students to take home.
High school students were rotated through a series of six interactive stations at 10 minute intervals with the following topics: (1) What is a Neuron?, (2) Visual Illusions, (3) Reflexes and Reaction Times, (4) Attention and Memory and (5) Neuroscience in Pop Culture. Teachers were asked to collect neuroscience questions from the students a few days before the visit, and these were answered at the stations.
What was the coolest thing that those students learned?
The students were particularly excited about seeing how the brain sometimes can play tricks on us through visual illusions, and then learning what those illusions teach us about how the brain works.
What do you hope to do after you complete your research at UC Davis?
I am planning to continue my research at UCD until I retire – which is hopefully going to be a long time from now since I just started two years ago!
How would you describe neuroscience in one sentence?
Neuroscience is the study of how the nervous system develops and functions normally and what goes wrong in neurological disorders.
MEGAN ELLIS can be reached at email@example.com.