- Feature Story
Meet the undergraduates
BCS undergraduates are as varied geographically as they are diverse in their scientific interests. Recently, three of them sat down with bcsnews to chat about their experiences as undergraduates in the department.
Kara Presbrey, MIT senior in the Tye laboratory
Hometown: Fort Myers, FL
On left: Kara Presbrey is an undergraduate researcher in Assistant Professor Kay Tye’s lab using optogenetic techniques to manipulate and record neural activity in a cell-type and projection-specific manner. She has worked on several projects, including investigation of stress-induced alcohol seeking, memory retrieval and context-dependent conditioned responses, amongst others.
Kara Presbrey knew MIT was the place for her very quickly after attending an information session.
“I saw a proof chalked on to one of the walls on the outside of the building where they held the info session and thought it was the greatest thing. It just felt right,” she explains.
While her experience at MIT has been academically challenging, she quickly discovered that academics alone don’t define undergraduates at the Institute.
“I came to MIT thinking that everyone would be devoted exclusively to their academic interests. I found out rapidly that that’s not at all the case. People here are very eccentric and have a wide variety of talents and recreational interests outside of the classroom. That is a big part of what has made me like MIT so much,” says Presbrey.
After arriving, she had to choose between majoring in neuroscience or physics.
“The type of physics that interested me was more theoretical in nature, and I realized that, for me, studying the brain is more central to existence than physics. And on top of that, if I studied neuroscience, I can expect to get data, and I can expect to be able to test my hypotheses quickly In theoretical physics, it's possible to have a theory and spend forty years just trying to find a way to test it. While I don’t necessarily expect to cure a disease, I do want to be able to show progress towards something in less time,” explains Presbrey.
For the last four years, her scientific home has been BCS Assistant Professor Kay Tye’s laboratory. She’s particularly interested in memory, psychiatric diseases, and the questions of attention and emotion that touch both.
“When neural circuits go awry and lead to disease, what’s actually going wrong? In the Tye lab, we use a variety of approaches, from molecular and cellular to computational and systems. While we think of our study generally from the systems perspective, we really need techniques from many different levels to answer questions in an exhaustive manner,” says Presbrey.
After graduation, Presbrey is taking a gap year before attending the University of California at San Francisco for a PhD in neuroscience, where she plans to continue her study of circuits.
“I think I want to stay in academia, but there are a vast number of opportunities in industry, as well. I’m looking forward to being able to make that choice.”
Anthony Preza, MIT Junior in the Bear laboratory
Hometown: Los Angeles, CA
On right: Anthony Preza is a member of Professor Mark Bear's lab where he performs biochemical assays, Golgi staining, spine imaging, and behavioral testing. His current project seeks to investigate the neurobiological mechanisms of convergent pathways among different genetic causes of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), and to potentially identify therapeutic targets for treatment of ASD.
Anthony Preza was first inspired to join Professor Mark Bear’s laboratory by his experience in 9.12 (Experimental Neurobiology) with BCS graduate student Laura Stoppel.
“Laura was really helpful in the class - she knew all the experiments and was fantastic at biochemistry. When I learned more about her research in the Bear Laboratory, I thought it was amazing. I was particularly interested in using biochemical techniques that I was familiar with to study the questions I care about the most.”
Those questions center around studying autism as a developmental disease on the molecular level. Working with both neurotypical mice and mouse models that have genetic markers for different types of autism, his hope is to trace autism spectrum disorders to converging biochemical pathways that can be targeted with beneficial drugs.
“We’re particularly interested in the hippocampus, which is the area of the brain where working memory is formed,” explains Preza. “The mouse models we study seem to have a very hard time habituating to new environments. In contrast, neurotypical mice learn about a new environment by exploring it a bit at first and becoming accustomed to their setting.”
When a mouse that has genetic characteristics associated with particular forms of autism is placed in the same environment, it has difficulty becoming familiar with its surroundings.
“These mice appear to believe that they’re always encountering a new environment, even after they have had time to explore the environment,” says Preza. “We think this result is explained by a failure to habituate to the novel environment, which may be correlated to social behavior challenges in humans.”
After graduating, Preza looks forward to taking a gap year before pursuing his dream of attending an MD / PhD graduate program.
“I see myself having an integrative approach in my career that combines research and treating patients. I want to be there for families. When you have a child who has an intellectual or developmental disability, it can be an incredible financial burden, especially if the resources aren’t immediately available in your community, or if you come from a family that doesn’t have the means to get that family member help. I want to be part of solving that problem before it starts.”
Ian Zaun, MIT junior in the Kanwisher laboratory
Hometown: Los Angeles, CA
On left: Zaun demonstrates ASL Eyetracking glasses. The glasses locate and track the retina and project its gaze points into camera footage by shooting infrared waves onto the glass monocle that reflects onto the eye. The eye then bounces these waves back to the eye tracker. By accounting for the differences between the initial infrared waves it sent out and the infrared waves that bounced back, the tracker is able to show on scene camera video where the retina was focused, indicating where the subject was looking.
“Majoring in brain and cognitive sciences is so much more than just neuroscience and psychology. The range of options is so broad. You can work with mice, you can work with computers, you can code – you’re really taking multiple disciplines and forging your own path. And after you’re done, you can take the skills you’ve learned here and work anywhere in the world, doing anything,” says Ian Zaun.
The BCS junior is a member of the Kanwisher lab, where he works on psychophysical applications.
“The primary focus of our work is social cues. We know that people who have autism or prosopagnosia struggle with recognizing faces and picking up social cues. If we’re able to figure out where that circuitry breaks down, hopefully we can develop therapies that will help correct it,” explains Zaun.
They accomplish this by identifying where neurotypical subjects look on people’s faces to see how they navigate the world. “Recently, we’ve been working on a real world eye tracker that’s more succinct and compact than the current models,” says Zaun.
In addition to his work in the lab, Zaun is a volunteer EMT on campus and the MedLinks director for his dorm. Supported by MIT’s Community Wellness at MIT Medical, MedLinks is a student based health advocacy program that connects students to each other for medical help, from recommending over the counter medications to lending a friendly ear when things get tough.
“The mental health support aspect of MedLinks is incredibly attractive to me. It’s a way to change the dialog about mental health in our society and build a safe space for those who struggle,” explains Zaun. “The more people who accept that mental illness is a problem and are willing to talk about it, the better chance we have of making a real difference in people’s lives down the road.”
His desire to be of service to others doesn’t stop at the borders of MIT’s Cambridge campus. Post graduation, Zaun hopes to attend medical school.
“I spent some time in children’s hospitals growing up and was really impressed with the medical staff. The hope and the caring demonstrated there was absolutely inspirational. It would be a great place to contribute to that legacy of raising the quality of life for people in need.”
Learn more about the undergraduate program in the department at bcs.mit.edu/undergraduate