From studying how the brain learns from its mistakes to researching treatments for psychiatric disorders and Parkinson’s disease, a half-dozen UChicago students are taking part in a unique summer program in Paris designed to broaden the scientific and cultural perspective of undergraduate neuroscience majors.
As part of the 10-week internship program, students work alongside a Collège de France faculty member examining advanced topics, ranging from the classic question of how the cerebellum forms to the newly discovered immune system of the nervous system.
Peggy Mason, professor of neurobiology and director of the neuroscience program, is thrilled with the high-level projects in which each student is participating. “The students’ work is very cutting-edge. They are pursuing questions that we didn’t even know to ask until very recently, and they are using some really exciting new techniques. I can’t wait for them to bring their ideas back to campus.”
Launched by the College in 2016, the neuroscience major was created in response to strong student demand. As the program continues to scale, its experiential learning opportunities have expanded on campus and throughout the world—deepening the College’s commitment to students’ intellectual development inside and beyond the classroom.
“Clearly, research is a value, even a way of life, here at UChicago. In building the neuroscience major, I have felt that it is critical to allow students the opportunity to pursue field-shaping research in partnership with our faculty,” said Mason. “Through this program, students expand their perspective beyond Chicago and beyond the U.S., so that those who know they like to research can conduct it in a very different environment.”
“This highly innovative new program was developed as part of the France Chicago Center’s unique and longstanding relationship with the Collège de France,” said Robert Morrissey, executive director of UChicago’s France Chicago Center. “The Collège de France represents one of the great research institutions in the world, and our students profit immensely from our French colleagues’ mentorship while enjoying the enormous cultural attractions in Paris.”
“The Paris program is one-of-a-kind in that it gives neuroscience majors a chance to do research abroad—at one of the best research institutions in Europe, no less,” said Camelia Malkami, a fourth-year student working in the laboratory of Alain Prochiantz. “When I found out about this opportunity, I knew it was perfect for me because it is specially designed for UChicago neuro majors.”
Malkami, a neuroscience and biological sciences major, is studying a protein in the brain called Otx2, which is thought to regulate critical periods of increased plasticity in the brain during development; the lab hopes that the knowledge may lead to better understanding and perhaps even treatment of psychiatric disorders such as autism, depression or schizophrenia.
“The lab I work in is truly a teaching lab with a culture of collaboration, and it is, in my opinion, exactly how science should be done,” said Malkami. “It only took a few days to realize that what they are doing is special, and I have decided to apply for a Fulbright scholarship to hopefully continue working for the lab after I graduate.”
Second-year Harini Shah, a neuroscience major and human rights minor, is working in the laboratory of Fekrije Selimi, studying the roots of motor coordination and balance and how the cerebellum fixes movements by learning from past mistakes. She is examining the mechanism of a protein involved in regulating the connections between Purkinje cells and climbing fibers, the “teaching” input to the cerebellum.
Shah believes her academic preparation has enabled her to partake in scientific discussions with those around her. “I recently engaged in a heavy scientific discussion with Dr. Selimi about a possible biochemical theory behind this entire process we’re studying, and it was really cool to do that with someone who is so accomplished. I felt I was truly making a difference in science and it was incredibly satisfying.”
She hopes to bring the new skills she has developed back to UChicago and incorporate them into her honors thesis. “I now have a better understanding of what kind of research techniques really interest me and can look deeper into concepts that fascinate me further, such as long-term potentiation and depression.”
In the laboratory of Laurent Venance, Marina Weinberger, a fourth-year student majoring in neuroscience and biology, is using a technique called optogenetics to better understand deep-brain stimulation, a widely used treatment for Parkinson’s disease. The research may help lead to non-surgical alternatives to deep-brain stimulation, expanding the range of available treatment options for Parkinson’s patients.
The pre-med student’s experience has inspired her to work toward a path in medical research so she can contribute to a project with clinical significance in an area of disease that she cares about.
“After my dad passed away from a neurodegenerative disease during my second year in the College, I decided I wanted to pursue medical school rather than a PhD, so that I could use my career to make a more direct impact on the lives of patients with neurodegenerative illnesses,” she said. “But while working on the Parkinson’s project, I’ve realized the separation between research and medicine isn’t nearly as distinct as I had thought. The lab closely collaborates with medical specialists from hospitals around France, and the research we conduct will hopefully lead to the development of new treatments down the road that will make coping with the disease much easier.”