Finding a Path to Neuroscience—and Blazing a Trail

Najah Walton, a Ph.D. student at the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences, is already mentoring younger students interested in careers in science
Najah Walton, a Ph.D. student in neuroscience, stands in the Maguire Lab at Tufts’ Graduate School for Biomedical Sciences. Photo: Alonso Nichols/Tufts University
“There’s so much I can do in the lab that can be transferred to humans,” said Najah Walton, a Ph.D. student in neuroscience, about her research on chronic stress and depression. Photo: Alonso Nichols / Tufts University
April 12, 2021

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Though Najah Walton is a first-generation college and graduate student, her family always encouraged her to explore the world and pursue higher education. Walton knew she wanted to help people, and she enrolled at the University of Massachusetts Boston, majoring in nursing.

A summer introductory research program gave her a deep passion for research, and she met Tiffany Donaldson, a psychology professor at UMass Boston who became a mentor. “It completely transformed my entire outlook on what I wanted to do with my career, what I wanted to be doing in life,” said Walton. “I worked in her lab for the remainder of my undergraduate career. But still, I wanted to push myself even further.”

Now a Ph.D. student in neuroscience at Tufts’ Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences (GSBS), she’s paying it forward as a resource and mentor for young scientists of color.

Her connection with Tufts came early—she took part in the Pathway to Ph.D. program at GSBS, a research-intensive experience for UMass Boston undergraduates interested in careers in biomedical research. Undergraduate students work one-on-one with Tufts graduate students and rotate learning about different types of research.

Her last rotation was neuroscience, which is when she first met Jamie Maguire, the Kenneth and JoAnn G. Wellner Professor of neuroscience and director of the Maguire Lab at Tufts University School of Medicine.

Maguire is also the director of Building Diversity in Biomedical Sciences (BDBS), a 10-week, research-intensive program for underrepresented students funded by the National Institutes of Health, which provides a stipend for participants. It seeks to provide career development opportunities that strengthen students’ applications and make them as competitive as possible when applying for Ph.D. or M.D./Ph.D. programs, with the hope of increasing diversity in STEM and biomedical sciences.

Walton completed the BDBS program after her junior year, and Maguire hired her as a technician in her lab during her senior year. Walton continued working there after she graduated with a nursing degree in May 2018.

When it was time to apply to graduate school, Walton applied at Tufts “to stay with this great group of people,” she said. “The students here really love the research, and that’s exactly what I was looking for.”

"Najah came to our Ph.D. program having explored other career paths. Because of that, she’s really committed and passionate about the work," said Jamie Maguire, director of the Maguire Lab at GSBS. Photo: Alonso Nichols/Tufts University“Najah is incredibly motivated, she’s a hard worker, and she’s not afraid to take on new challenges,” said Maguire. “She came to our Ph.D. program having explored other career paths and decided this is the right one for her. Because of that, she’s really committed and passionate about the work.”

The Neuroscience of Depression

Walton wanted to dive right into a graduate program with research that relates to patient care. “There’s so much I can do in the lab that can be transferred to humans,” she said. “I can conduct an experiment in a week in the lab, get the results, and see if it’s something worth pursuing, versus clinical trials that take years and cost lots of money.”

Walton’s research focuses on understanding the neurological mechanisms that lead to depression. She looks at naturally produced steroids in the brain called neurosteroids, how they’re impacted by chronic stress, and why chronic stress makes people vulnerable to mood disorders.

“Chronic stress is a major risk factor for psychiatric illnesses, such as anxiety and depression,” explained Maguire. “Najah is working with a pre-clinical model based on chronic stress to understand what changes occur in brain areas that are involved in emotional processing potentially contributing to behaviors relevant to depression in humans.”

Research that Maguire did almost 15 years ago helped lead Sage Therapeutics to create a drug that treats postpartum depression using synthetic allopregnanolone, which is a type of neurosteroid produced in the placenta, ovaries, gonads, and skin.

“We know that giving people synthetic allopregnanolone can alleviate postpartum depression symptoms, but we don’t know how it works,” said Walton. “Patients get an infusion of this compound, and within hours, they feel some relief from their depressive symptoms. These effects have been shown 30 and 60 days out. But we need to know more so that we can determine the mechanism and expand how many patients can be treated.”

More than Mentorship

Jenah Gabby, A22, a pre-med junior at Tufts, connected with Walton after a virtual research internship with the University of Washington last summer cemented a passion for neuroscience. She searched for neuroscientists at Tufts and sent a message to Walton.

“I wasn’t sure the Maguire lab would want help from an undergraduate student, but I put myself out there and I got something good in return,” said Gabby.

Last semester, Walton designed a data analyzation project that Gabby could work on virtually, which involved watching videos of two groups of mice—a control group and a group that received a dose of stress hormone—and comparing their behaviors. Gabby said it was her first exposure to neurological techniques in research, and she liked contributing a piece to the bigger picture of Walton’s research.

“This is one of the first decisions I’ve made for my career, for what I want to do with my life,” Gabby said. “Najah is very flexible, and she knows academics always come first. She keeps me on the radar about opportunities around me. She told me about BDBS, and I applied. Hopefully I get in and can work in their lab over the summer.”

The BDBS program connected Walton to another undergraduate student she mentors: Lea Barros, a junior at Hamilton College in New York who is originally from Cape Verde. After Barros participated in BDBS during the summer of 2019, Walton invited her back to help with research at the Maguire lab the following summer and brought her to a one-day retreat for female graduate students in STEM.

“I got to know her better and we clicked a lot—we actually share the same birthday,” said Barros. “Najah is very genuine and charismatic. I was excited to work with her and to form a connection with someone I can feel comfortable talking to.”

The BDBS program, which has been running for more than 20 years, has always had an element of mentorship to it. It started off as research mentorship, but since taking over the program three years ago, Maguire has added peer mentorship, as well.

“We’ve tried to connect students with individuals who are in roles they want to see themselves in, so that they can see the path to the Ph.D. or M.D./Ph.D. and connect with students who are on that path presently. It makes that path seem more approachable,” Maguire said.

After a delay due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Barros recently began virtually contributing to Walton’s research with a data analyzation project that looks at interactions between different parts of the brain. She regularly meets with Maguire and Walton to discuss research updates.

“I attribute a lot of our mentorship success in this area to working with Najah,” said Maguire. “It’s really challenging to identify projects that undergraduate students can work on virtually and independently. But Najah was able to come up with projects that will be beneficial to the career development of these students while also contributing to our research goals to understand the pathophysiological mechanisms of depression.”

Though Walton has come full circle, from an undergraduate student in need of mentorship to a Ph.D. student providing it, she’s still pushing herself and taking advantage of new opportunities. She was recently selected for the Neuroscience Scholars Program through the Society for Neuroscience, a prestigious two-year online program that provides career development guidance and mentorship.

Angela Nelson can be reached at angela.nelson@tufts.edu.