Kick-Starting a Career in Neuroscience Research

Thanks to Tufts’ Post-Baccalaureate Research Program, Sofia Corella is searching for predictive biomarkers for post-traumatic epilepsy

Sofia Corella at Tufts. Thanks to the Post-Baccalaureate Research Program at Tufts, Corella is doing research on finding predictive biomarkers for post-traumatic epilepsy

When she went to college, Sofia Corella—who came to the U.S. with her family from Costa Rica when she was seven years old—majored in psychology and got her first taste of research. It turned out to dovetail with an interest in medical science sparked by caring for her grandmother when she was young.

Hoping to do a Ph.D. program in science, she is now taking part in the Post-Baccalaureate Research Program (PREP) at Tufts Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences. The program offers research training for recent college graduates interested in pursuing research careers in the biomedical sciences.

Tufts PREP trainees can conduct up to two years of research work in a field of their choosing, in which they are mentored by faculty members, and participate in classes, workshops, and seminars.

They receive a stipend, health benefits, and tuition through the program, which is funded in part by a grant from the National Institute of Health’s National Institute of General Medical Sciences, designed to increase the number of people from groups currently underrepresented in biomedical science research.

Corella works in the lab of Chris Dulla, an associate professor of neuroscience at the School of Medicine who studies glutamate, an excitatory neurotransmitter, and its role in signaling in the brain, especially as it relates to epilepsy and traumatic brain injury.

Tufts Now recently spoke with Corella to learn more about her research, and how the PREP program is helping her achieve her goal of pursuing a Ph.D.

Tufts Now: How did you get interested in science?

Sofia Corella: My interest in science goes way back to when I was seven and my grandma was sick. I hadn’t even realized it, but at the time I had all these questions about science, health, and medicine.

“The ultimate hope of my ongoing research project is that our results will lead to the discovery of clinically useful activity-based predictive biomarkers for post-traumatic epilepsy,” said Sofia Corella. Photo: Alonso Nichols“The ultimate hope of my ongoing research project is that our results will lead to the discovery of clinically useful activity-based predictive biomarkers for post-traumatic epilepsy,” said Sofia Corella. Photo: Alonso Nichols
When my family moved to the U.S. from Costa Rica, these questions and interests got pushed aside for a time. I became focused on my family’s well-being and exceling in school, where I loved math and science classes. I then attended University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill to study psychology, and I had the opportunity to do scientific research.

I didn’t know what research was or if I would like it, but I started because I had the opportunity to. As it turns out, I really enjoyed it and worked in a biology lab at UNC Chapel Hill for three years before pursuing an honors thesis in psychology and neuroscience.

What research are you currently conducting at Tufts?

I am monitoring altered cortical network activity in a mouse model of traumatic brain injury. Traumatic brain injury disrupts neuronal circuitry in the cerebral cortex, and can lead to motor dysfunction, cognitive losses, and post-traumatic epilepsy. Following traumatic brain injury, between 5 and 40 percent of patients go on to develop spontaneous recurrent seizures.

The likelihood that traumatic brain injury leads to post-traumatic epilepsy is influenced by the type of injury, its severity, and the patient’s age. Currently, no biomarkers for identifying patients with a high likelihood of developing post-traumatic epilepsy have been found or proven clinically useful.

The ultimate hope of my ongoing research project is that our results will lead to the discovery of clinically useful activity-based predictive biomarkers for post-traumatic epilepsy.

Is there a specific topic you would like to explore in the future?

My undergraduate research experience and time in the Dulla Lab at Tufts has helped me to determine that I want to continue doing neuroscience research. I can see myself doing basic and translational research to more directly impact and help people.

What motivates you to continue science research?

I love the scientific process. Observing and gathering information about the way nature works takes logical and critical thinking, venturing outside your technical skill set, learning new techniques, and implementing new technologies. I like that it pushes you to approach your questions creatively and with fresh, new perspectives. Seeing the small but significant steps that add up to an experiment, and, hopefully, answer a scientific question is extremely satisfying. The answers are there—it’s just a matter of asking the right questions and reassessing your process.

If you could tell your younger self something, what would it be?

I always think of this quote from Eleanor Roosevelt, “The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.” It really is true, and I would tell myself to continue working towards my goals.

What was the most surprising thing about working in a lab?

I’m still surprised by the creativity in science. Having a creative side is important to the scientific process—whether it's brainstorming experiments, finding new ways to solve old problems, or deciding how data will be interpreted and given meaning. The best and most surprising moments are sudden revelations of how to solve a problem while on the T or dreaming up solutions to a problem encountered in the lab.

What has been the most frustrating part of research?

Dealing with failed experiments, especially due to unexpected technical problems or reasons out of my control. I can deal with owning my mistakes, but it’s harder when experiments don’t work for no fault of your own. 

My project has been hard because I’m using new techniques, but Chris Dulla has been really encouraging. We meet every week to talk about my research progress and brainstorm solutions to problems I may be running into with my project. After meeting, I walk out with new insight and a fresh perspective to continue advancing my project.

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