What neurons control feeding behavior? How does sleep link emotion and memory? What neural connections are made in the brain as children learn to read? These very different research directions all got an assist from students graduating this year in the Undergraduate Program in Neuroscience. Each earned “high honors” for her thesis work. Read about their journeys to becoming scientists.
“Before coming to U-M, I didn’t really know what it meant to ‘do research,’ but I was curious,” explains Julliana Ramirez-Matias. During her first year, she worked with EEB Professor Elizabeth Tibbetts as part of the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program [UROP] to study the behavioral evolution of Polistes paper wasps. “I stayed in the lab that summer to increase my involvement in and understanding of our research. I loved playing a direct role in the research process and helping to make discoveries in science. That experience encouraged me to continue with my research journey. The following summer, I participated in the UM-SMART Summer Research Program, which led me to my current lab.
“I work with Dr. David Olson in the Brehm Center for Diabetes Research. We study the neural circuitry underlying feeding behavior and energy expenditure. My research investigates neuronal subpopulations within a region of the hypothalamus implicated in obesity in humans and mice. Through the use of transgenic mouse models and cell-specific manipulations, we’ve been able to probe the function of different neurons to better understand their contributions toward energy balance.” (MCDB Assistant Professor Monica Dus was her cosponsor in the neuroscience program.)
In addition to her research, she also shared her love of science as a Peer Tutor at the Science Learning Center. “I tutor general chemistry, so most of the students I see are freshmen. I like to hear about students’ experiences and help them navigate through their first semesters in college. As a tutor, I try to guide students during tutoring sessions and remind them to focus on the problem-solving process rather than the solution. It’s fun to see them begin to use those strategies on their own to improve their understanding of current and future course concepts.”
Ramirez-Matias took advantage of the breadth of opportunities at Michigan. “ I’m pursuing a music minor. I’ve played the viola since elementary school, and personally, I’ve found that music is a vital part of my education. As much as I love my major, music gives me an outlet for creative expression and a break from my science courses.”
A comparative literature class with prisoners at the Macomb Correctional Facility created an important memory for her. “I was fortunate enough to hear perspectives that are otherwise hidden from my attention. The last day of class was most memorable, and one of my most significant memories at U-M. The entire group ate a nice dinner together at the prison, and we later presented projects that we had been working on for the past couple of weeks. I was moved by the poetry and art produced by my classmates, relating to topics such as freedom, justice, and equality. They offered their insights into a life that I will never fully understand. As part of an agreement signed at the beginning of the class, that was the last time I would see any of the ‘inside students. ‘ I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to have conversations with and learn from others during my time in that class.”
Ramirez-Matias says her parents have inspired her more than anyone. “They are not scientists. In fact, neither of my parents graduated high school. But they’ve given me the support and freedom to pursue a path of my choice. My father is from Guatemala, and he and my mother have made countless scarifies to ensure that my sisters and I had opportunities that weren’t available to them. Their love and open-mindedness have been crucial for me to find my way toward a career in science.”
After graduation, she will be as a research assistant in Anne Brunet’s Lab at Stanford University, which explores the role of diet in aging and longevity. “I also plan to apply to MD/PhD programs in hopes of becoming part of a growing team of physician-scientists.”
Amy Ensing knew coming into college that she was really interested in research. “Before my sophomore year, I started looking into which labs were working on projects that interested me.” She joined MCDB Associate Professor Sara Aton’s lab where the researchers are studying sleep and memory consolidation. A double major in neuroscience and Spanish, Ensing worked closely with MCDB graduate student Brittany Clawson.
“The projects that I have worked on throughout my time in the Aton lab are focused on TRAP (Targeted Recombination in Active Populations) as a method to label and manipulate neurons involved in sleep mediated memory consolidation. A lot of what I did in the Aton lab was preparing tissue for imaging, doing immunohistochemistry, imaging and analyzing samples, and doing behavioral analysis. This February, some of the work that I did was actually published in our paper “Causal role for sleep-dependent reactivation of learning-activated sensory ensembles for fear memory consolidation” [See: ATON LAB: SLEEP IS VITAL TO ASSOCIATING EMOTION WITH MEMORIES]"
“One of my favorite memories from lab is when my mentor, Brittany Clawson, first showed me some preliminary figures that my work had contributed to. That was the first time it really hit me that I was doing work that was contributing to answering real questions in neuroscience. It made me really proud and excited to see even a small piece of everything coming together.”
Ensing has been busy doing volunteer teaching and tutoring with Project Healthy Schools, PALMA: Latino Mentoring Association, and Detroit Education Society. “I also am a Co-President and Founding Member of CURIS: Public Health Advocacy, a student organization that collaborates with different organizations in Southeastern Michigan to help them with projects that promote public health.”
Growing up in Ann Arbor, she spent time at the Hands On Museum and Museum of Natural History (before its move to the Biological Sciences Building), which she says helped ignite her interest in science. ”Both of my parents are doctors, so growing up, they exposed me to a scientific way of thinking from a very early age. Asking questions about everyday experiences and talking about the science behind them are some of my fondest memories. I think that being exposed to those types of things as a kid was very influential in my path into science.”
Ensing says as neuroscience major, “It has been fascinating to me to learn about all of the intricacies of the neurological processes that drive us. and make us who we are. Neuroscience is also a field in which there are many discoveries left to be made. Being able to read about new and exciting findings in neuroscience and look at all of the things that we have left to discover about the brain was really exciting to me.”
After graduation, Ensing is attending medical school and says her hope is “to continue contributing to research and scientific innovation throughout my medical career.”
Lynn Eickholt found her way to research through UROP, initially focusing on functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) data to examine functional connectivities of language regions of the brain. For her thesis work, she analyzed images of brain regions at different time points as children learn to read, exploring structural connections underlying reading acquisition. Fortunately, images were available to analyze that had been collected by Psychology Professor Ioulia Kovelman's California collaborators before research was shut down for in-person studies during much of the last year.
"We are using a tractography map to illustrate the segmentation of the arcuate fasciculus, a structural region connecting language areas, in our sample of 110 children who are learning to read."
“I really enjoy analyzing neuroimaging data, which drives my passion for research.” Her career plans include an MD/PhD and more neuroimaging as a neuroradiologist.
Eickholt found a mentor in Rebecca Marks, who recently earned her PhD in the Combined Program of Education and Psychology. She encouraged her to participate in scientific meetings to present her work “ She has helped me immensely throughout my undergrad career, and I would not be where I am without her.”
Eickholt says “I've wanted to major in Neuroscience ever since I was in high school. I am fascinated by the brain and love learning about the biology behind why we experience the world and consciousness the way we do.
“I think the people who really inspired me include my high school AP Biology and AP Psychology teachers. They were so knowledgeable and passionate about their fields, and their influence on my learning is something for which I am very grateful.”
During her time at Michigan, Eickholt was rank leader of the tenor saxophone section in the Marching Band and played the baritone saxophone in the University Band. She was excited to have one last concert on the stage in Hill Auditorium though without an in-person audience.
What a way to end an undergrad career
“This ending to my undergrad career is a reminder to always try to be grateful for small moments and opportunities, and to stay in the present rather than dwelling on the past or relying too heavily on the future,” says Lynn Eickholt. “You never know when your ‘lasts’ will be, so it's important to take some time to truly enjoy where you are now.”
“The pandemic has changed many of my plans, but I’m trying to be more flexible and adapt to all the changes,” says Julliana Ramirez-Matias.” I’ve had research experiences and volunteer opportunities canceled, but I’ve been fortunate enough to find new ones. Overall, I think the pandemic is forcing me to become more resilient and prepare myself for an uncertain future.”
“School has definitely been hard over the past year and it’s extremely odd to think that my undergraduate career will end by hitting the ‘Leave Meeting’ button on Zoom. However, I am extremely grateful for the support that I have received this year from my friends, family, and mentors,” adds Amy Ensing. “Overall, my experience in the Aton Lab and at the University of Michigan has been wonderful. Everyone was always extremely welcoming and helpful, and my experiences here have been fundamental to my growth as a scientist. Go Blue!"