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CU Denver students selected for research fellowship

Nicolette Moya worked 10 weeks at Columbia University with Dr. Kandel.
Photo: John Mazzetta· The Sentry

Research at Columbia and Harvard

Two CU Denver students, Nicolette Moya, a senior double majoring in psychology and biology, and Matthew Mitchell, a third-year pre-med student studying molecular biology and biological pathway interrogation with the aspiration of going into the medical field, have been awarded a research fellowship from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) and the Exceptional Research Opportunities Program (EXROP), giving them the opportunity to further their education out of state with renowned individuals and prominent universities.

The two organizations, HHMI and EXROP, aim to help students who want to pursue careers in research. Specifically, HHMI matches students with their own researchers across the nation, and EXROP increases the diversity of students in scientific research. 

Moya worked in Dr. Ben Greenwood’s Exercise Behavioral Neuroscience Lab where she thought she would be conducting her research for over the summer of 2018. However, that plan changed when Dr. Greenwood recommended her for the fellowship. 

After submitting all of the necessary documents by mid-December, she was notified in January that she had received the fellowship. By February, she was matched with Dr. Kandel at Columbia University where she would stay for a total of 10 weeks studying “molecular mechanisms of strong and weak fear memories in mice” in order “to observe potential novel targets for the treatment of stress-related psychiatric disorders, such as PTSD,” Moya said.

“When I was notified that I would be working with Dr. Kandel, a lot of emotions went through my mind. I was shocked, nervous, excited, proud, but for the longest time, my strongest emotion was doubt. I thought they had chosen the wrong person,” Moya said. “I am a first-generation college student and have done well in classes but didn’t think I was good enough to work with Dr. Kandel at Columbia University.”

As time went on though and as she worked with a fellow researcher, Dr. Arun Asok, Moya gained confidence, new perspectives in scientific research, and friendships. “When I did finally leave for the summer and started in the lab, I started to realize that I worked very hard to get there and deserved to be there,” Moya said. “Overall, I am very lucky that I got the opportunity to work in Kandel’s lab at Columbia University this summer. I learned so much more than I ever expected to, and [I] am now confident with my capabilities going into graduate school.” 

Mitchell worked in Dr. Christopher Phiel’s lab for over two years before receiving the fellowship. Mitchell was paired with Dr. Catherine Dulac at Harvard University where he studied genomic imprinting, which determines whether a gene came from the mother or father in brain tissue slices from mice. The goal is “to identify areas of pharmaceutical study to hopefully, one day, effectively treat people born with imprinted gene disorders like Angelman’s Syndrome and Prader-Willi Syndrome,” Mitchell said.

Mitchell conducted this type of work by focusing on the Bcl-X cluster, which is involved in apoptosis (cellular suicide).

“When I was awarded the fellowship, I was a bit hesitant at first. I didn’t know how big of a deal it was until a few months later when I attended the meeting in Maryland,” Mitchell said. “The program felt like it lasted a long time, but it was a very rewarding experience, and I got a lot out of it.”

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