We’re taking time to get to know the members of the GSA’s Early Career Scientist Committees. Join us to learn more about our early career scientist advocates.
Career Development Subcommittee
University of Minnesota
Picture this: a friend recommends a new restaurant that has opened in your neighborhood. Based on their suggestion, you decide to try the restaurant, expecting to like the food. The amount of enjoyment that you expect to get out of your experience at the restaurant is analogous to a concept called “expected outcome value.” Now, depending on the actual outcome of your experience (whether you enjoyed the food as much as expected, more than expected, or less than expected), you will update the expected outcome value. This will also influence your decision of returning to that restaurant and recommending it to friends. Such decision-making requires an accurate mental representation of the expected outcome value and the ability to update it constantly based on real-time cues in your environment. As seen in the restaurant example, once a particular outcome has occurred—depending on the difference between the expected and actual outcome value—we update our representation of the outcome and use this information to make future decisions.
I am interested in understanding mechanisms underlying the representation of outcome values within the brain, focusing on a brain region known as the ventral pallidum (VP). The VP is involved in reward-processing, learning about reward cues, and the motivation to seek and obtain rewards. I use a Pavlovian conditioning paradigm in rats and train them to associate a cue (a tone) with a reward (sucrose solution). This allows the animals to create a mental representation of the expected outcome value, i.e. the reward. Then, I manipulate the outcome value by allowing them to consume the reward freely until they are satisfied. I subsequently assess their motivation to obtain the same reward in response to the reward tone. Our hypothesis is that free consumption of the reward should lead to an immediate decrease in the value of the reward and should be reflected in the decrease in the animals’ motivation levels to obtain the reward. Using in-vivo electrophysiology, I can record electrical signals from VP neurons while the animals are undergoing the above-mentioned behavioral tasks. I can then assess whether a change in the reward value is associated with changes in the firing patterns of VP neurons. This would help us understand whether VP neurons are involved in encoding the expected outcome value and updating it within the brain.
As a PhD-trained scientist, you have many career options. What interests you the most?
Over the years, I have realized that the aspects of science I enjoy most are scientific writing and reading about and discussing new ideas and discoveries from various fields. I also enjoy working in teams, which allows me to collaborate and exchange ideas. For these reasons, I am interested in a career in scientific administration and science policy and advocacy.
When I entered scientific research fresh out of college, I was not aware of facets of science beyond lab work like writing grants to secure research funding, publishing in peer-reviewed journals, and collaborating with scientific policy administrators at the federal and/or state government level. The years I spent in this field showed me not only how these aspects interact to enable scientists to do research, but more importantly how rewarding they can be as career options in themselves. My time in research has equipped me with the skill set required for such a career, and now I am focused on building a network that will help me transition to creating my own path.
In addition to your research, how do you want to advance the scientific enterprise?
Compared to previous years, there is now greater emphasis on the need to be more inclusive and provide equal opportunities for everyone in science. This shift is driven by overwhelming evidence showing that scientists from marginalized groups, such as the BIPOC and Latinx communities, are underrepresented at the highest levels of science, partly due to the lack of opportunities and awareness about existing opportunities. One of my goals is to contribute to endeavors that promote scientists from underrepresented backgrounds by making more funds available to them at the undergraduate, graduate, and postdoctoral levels. Eventually, I would like to work in the sphere of science policy and administration, where I can implement changes in policies that govern funding, thereby making science a more inclusive enterprise.
As a leader within the Genetics Society of America, what do you hope to accomplish?
As a member of the Career Development Subcommittee, I work with other early career researchers toward creating awareness about career opportunities outside mainstream academia available to researchers across the world. Through efforts like the Wednesday Workshop series and the Decoding Life blog series, our goals are to 1) demonstrate the diversity of career paths outside mainstream academia that are available to early career scientists and 2) convey to early career scientists that having a PhD equips them with a diverse skill set that can be applied to myriad areas beyond academia. Working as a part of this committee—and within GSA overall—has given me an opportunity to connect with other early career scientists who, like me, are looking for alternate career options and can therefore help each other. It has also given me the opportunity to expand my network and interact with people who have built successful careers outside of academia. I hope to leverage this network and use it to my advantage in finding a career path that interests me.