Undergrad researchers seek answers in NeuroCURE lab: UNM Newsroom

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Mubarak Hussain Syed, an assistant professor of biology at the University of New Mexico, and his students, many of them undergraduates, study the genetic and molecular mechanics that regulate neuronal diversity – from stem cells to neural circuits. Findings will help understand the fundamental principles of nervous system development and potentially understand and treat neurodevelopmental disorders such as epilepsy, schizophrenia, ADHD and autism.

In 2021, Syed received the National Science Foundation’s prestigious CAREER Award, which allows him to pursue his passion for research, engage a diverse population of undergraduate students in neuroscience research, and reach out to science by visiting schools and college faculty and students trains. his project Mechanisms Regulating Neural Identity, Connectivity, and Function – From Stem Cells to Circuitsreceived $1.8 million over five years.

Most of the students in Syed’s lab pursue degrees in biology and biochemistry, although he would like to attract more computer students with an interest in solving biological problems. Four high school students are also working in the lab this summer.

Working with fruit flies is a big part of research.

“Fruit flies are an excellent model system for understanding the genetic basis of nervous system development and function,” said Syed, who has been working with fruit flies for over a decade and is known as the ‘Fly Guy’.

After initial training, students pursue independent projects that focus primarily on neural stem cells, how neural stem cells generate different neural types (neurons and glia) and use 3D-printed modules to measure and analyze fruit fly behavior, Syed said.

“Some of my students have published articles and some are about to publish them. When they start research in their freshman year, there’s plenty of time to finish a story and get it published,” Syed noted.

Gonzalo Nahim Morales Chaya

For example, Gonzalo Nahim Morales Chaya, who graduated in biochemistry in spring 2022, worked on two independent projects: he studied how the cell cycle regulates precise temporal gene expression within neural stem cells, and the role of a conserved gene in sleep formation neurons and behavior. He presented his work at the Genetic Society of America’s annual Drosophila Research Conference in San Diego and received the Victoria Finnerty Travel Award, which supports conference attendance expenses for select GSA undergraduate members presenting research. He is currently spending a summer at the University of Oregon where he is part of the SPUR UO program. After his return, he will work as a research assistant for another year and then apply to the graduate school.

“If I’ve been able to see further in science, it’s because Dr. Syed convinced me that I was capable of this,” Chaya said. “Not only did he change the way I think about science, but he also pushed me to overcome failure and have faith in my abilities. After working in his lab, I am confident that I can continue my passion for studying the brain and pursue a Ph.D. Program.”

Alexa Gonzales is a first generation student from a Mexican immigrant family from a small village near Hatch. She has been working with Syed for over a year and has contributed to the research project focused on the evolution of olfactory navigational behavior. She received a U-RISE grant and will continue her research on the project. She is currently spending a summer at the University of Michigan.

“Thanks to Syed and my Ph.D. I feel at home in the lab. Student mentor Aisha Hamid for mentoring me and giving me this life changing opportunity,” she said.

“There’s so much research that needs to be done in this world we live in, and this lab just focuses on neural diversity, which is itself so complex. This is groundbreaking research happening here on the body’s most complicated organ and I’m thrilled to be a part of it.”


Lindsey Thomas, NeuroCURE lab student

Lindsey Thomas explained why her research is important to her in Syed’s Neurogenetics Laboratory (NeuroCURE), a discovery-based class where students learn and conduct original research.

“I’m from a smaller town in New Mexico and didn’t have access to scientific research. I came to UNM and eventually found my niche in research while working on my Bachelor of Science in Biology. i met dr Syed for the first time by contacting him about joining his journal club, NeuroDeGen, which would give me high-class standing. When I met him in person, he quickly realized that I had very little mentoring for what I wanted to pursue and he allowed me to take his NeuroCURE course.”

During the lesson, Thomas got to know the model organism Drosophila melanogaster and launched a project to study genes homologous or similar to human genes known to be associated with degenerative neural diseases.

“This project is very special for me because neurodegenerative diseases are very common in my life. Now I can work in a laboratory setting to learn more about the relationship between genes, development and disease,” she said, adding, “By working with Dr. With Syed as my mentor last semester, I learned more than any other semester. There was so much hands-on work, and everyone who worked with me in the lab was so great at explaining and teaching me more information.” She plans to stay in the lab for as long as possible and would like to after her bachelor’s degree do a doctorate.

“There’s so much research that needs to be done in this world we live in, and this lab just focuses on neural diversity, which is itself so complex. This is groundbreaking research happening here on the body’s most complicated organ and I’m thrilled to be a part of it,” said Thomas.

Brandi Hess and son William

Brandi Hess and son William

Junior Brandi Hess received a U-RISE MARC award from the National Institutes of Health for her work in Syed’s lab. She is the mother of an 8 month old son William and hopes to be a role model for other students.

“As a student looking to get into research, it can be difficult and even daunting to know where to start,” Hess said. “I spent a long time searching for information and opportunities to get into a lab or find out what I was interested in before I had the opportunity to come into Syed’s lab. In a short time since I’ve been in the lab, I’ve gained the confidence to do my own research on an interesting topic, and I’ve learned so much about subjects that I’ve studied in the classroom for years. A pragmatic approach to learning was more effective than the time I spent on exams and studying in lectures. Alternatively, having the space to learn from PhD students to know what is required to enter a graduate program has been extremely helpful.”

Hess said that with the URISE fellowship and the experience she gained through Syed’s lab, she plans to pursue a Ph.D. program and pursues their research as a career in academia or a private laboratory.

Ethan Cato Wilson also graduated this Spring 2022 with his Bachelor of Science in Biochemistry.

“Working at Syed’s Neural Diversity Lab has been a fantastic opportunity to gain the hands-on lab experience that I’ve been missing due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Performing the dissection and assembly protocols on Drosophila larvae helped fill in the gaps in my knowledge of neuronal development. I could also dr. Meet Andrea Gomez, a neuroscientist from Laguna Pueblo with a lab in Berkeley, California. Being a Navajo herself, she has continued my inspiration to pursue a career in neuroscience as there are few Native Americans in this groundbreaking field of science.”

Wilson plans to continue working with Syed in his neural diversity lab to better understand the molecular mechanisms that regulate proper brain development.

Lab-trained students will be able to pursue a variety of exciting science-related careers such as academia, industry, scientific writing, data scientists, medicine and lab management, to name a few, Syed said. Beyond the confines of his lab, he has started an informal mentoring program, NEURONAL, and encourages all interested students to take part.

Syed hopes undergraduate researchers will take away from his lab the experiences and training that will help them “think like a scientist, work like a scientist, and be a scientist, and the sheer joy of exploring, innovating, and… Curiosity drives our passion to do science.”

View the various scientists working at the Neural Diversity Laboratory here and email [email protected] for more information on the programs and research.

Picture: Drosophila art by Aisha Hamid

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