Finding my niche: Neuroscience

By: Hector Haddock-Martinez

When I was in High School, I participated in a summer research experience through the NIH STEP-UP program. I was assigned to work under the guidance of Dr. James Porter, a neuroscientist who studies fear memory in rats. When I walked into Dr. Porter’s lab the first day of June, I had no idea what a neuron really was. By the end of July, I left knowing about muscarinic receptors, conditioned fear responses, and basic neuroanatomy. Although I was nowhere near to understanding the specific details of what I had worked on for the summer, I did know two things: I enjoyed research, and I was fascinated by the brain. This summer experience marked the beginning of my academic trajectory within neuroscience. I ended up working with Dr. Porter for three summers, all through the STEP-UP program.

Eventually, I decided to continue to pursue my interest in neuroscience in a laboratory closer to my home institution. Thus, I joined the laboratory of Dr. Demetrio Sierra at the University of Puerto Rico School of Medicine, were we focus on studying the effects of brain damage on rodent behavior. Here, I learned that the brain undergoes a series of neural changes after sustaining injury. I remember being captivated by this idea that the “plastic” brain can modify itself to preserve function after being damaged. Moreover, I was surprised by the fact that these changes may sometimes be accompanied by changes in behavior. This led me to develop a research project that focused on studying the effects of brain damage due to chemical exposure on different animal behaviors, particularly anxiety, locomotion and fear. My main research question is to figure out how chemical contaminants can alter behavior by damaging the brain. Moreover, I wish to know how exactly the brain is being damaged by these chemicals.

Currently, I feel like I have a a strong skillset to tackle these questions. My background using behavioral assays and techniques has really helped me throughout my experiment. By mastering Classical Fear Conditioning, rodent handling, stereotaxic surgeries, and immunohistochemical techniques, my work has flowed smoothly these past months (prior to COVID-19). However, I would like to learn more microscopy techniques for viewing my immunohistochemical slides, since at this point, I do not feel comfortable with imaging. I feel that adding this skillset to my “toolbox” will definitely help me become a better scientist.

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