Graduate Student Spotlight: Natale Sciolino
Hometown: Buffalo, New York
Degree objective: Doctoral Candidate, Neuroscience
Expected Graduation Date: July 2013
Sciolino recently performed experiments that showed regular, voluntary exercise produced benefits in anxiety behavior in rodents that were exposed to stress. This data is consistent with evidence from human studies that also suggests exercise reduces anxiety.
“To understand the brain mechanisms that underlie the benefits of exercise, we measured whether regular exercise would alter gene expression for a peptide involved in anxiety (i.e., galanin). Through this research, we were able to show that exercise elevates galanin gene expression in the locus coeruleus, a part of the brain that regulates stress and is dysregulated in anxiety. Our data implicates an important role for galanin in the therapeutic effects of exercise and suggests that increased galanin after exercise inhibits the stress-reactive locus coeruleus,” Sciolino explains.
“My dissertation research will provide the first evaluation of whether brain galanin is necessary for the stress-protective effects of exercise on anxiety behavior and levels of an adrenalin-like chemical in the brain (i.e., norepinephrine in the frontal cortex). To evaluate this, sedentary and exercise rodents will be administered a drug into the brain to inhibit galanin receptors (or administered placebo) before a stress manipulation. This experiment will add to our understanding of the brain mechanisms that allow exercise to confer stress resilience.
Sciolino’s interest in neuroscience was shaped by volunteering for the Women and Children’s Hospital of Buffalo. She explains how her interest developed after meeting a patient at the hospital.
“I met a boy who was in a vegetative state because he was underwater for a dangerously long period of time,” Sciolino explains. “His experience resulted in the loss of higher cognitive functions, then the ability to speak, and finally the ability to move. Although saddened by the tremendous loss suffered by this boy, I was fascinated by the executive power of the brain to make decisions that aid in survival.
It was this experience, coupled with classes in biopsychology, which bolstered Sciolino’s drive to learn about the brain and the biological basis of behavior.
“The research that I am performing in the laboratory of Dr. Philip Holmes is relevant to society, as it could inform the development of exercise regimens to treat stress-related disorders (e.g., anxiety, drug addiction). The benefits of exercise therapy are plentiful, including limited financial burden and side effects relative to current drug therapy. Ultimately, identification of the brain mechanisms underlying exercise could be used to develop drug therapies for mental disorders.”
In addition to providing important research in her field of study, last summer Natale received a competitive graduate student award from the National Institute of Health to attend the 61st Meeting of Nobel Laureates and Students in Lindau, Germany. Students from all over the world gathered with laureates in physiology and medicine to discuss research and pressing issues in the field.
“In Lindau, we had the opportunity to attend various talks given by several laureates and other impressive guest speakers like Countess Bettina Bernadotte and Bill Gates. We also were able to work with the laureates in small discussion and brainstorming groups and converse with them on scientific matters as well as personal, political, and societal matters that affect our world,” she explains. “Some of my favorite parts of the meeting were the talks by Christian de Duve on “The future of life” and the talk “A toolmakers story” by Oliver Smithies on his discovery of recombinant DNA techniques. I carry the personal message I received from those talks with me today and am reminded through them to enjoy the fun of science and to be astutely aware of our influence as scientists on society. I must admit that the appreciation I formed for the laureates parallels the esteem I feel for my peers attending the meeting, who I am quite confident will continue to make important discoveries in science and become the laureates of the future,” she says.
Sciolino credits her professors and peers at the University of Georgia for helping to guide her as a scientist, specifically highlighting collaboration as a way to maintain innovative approaches in the field of neuroscience.
“As a developing scientist, my training has been greatly impacted by the faculty and students that I have been fortunate to work with at UGA,” she says. I am fascinated by how collaboration can provide such an innovative approach in the study of neuroscience. Becoming a scientist is not only a career path, but also a way of life and component of self-identity. Well after my tenure at UGA, these experiences will continue to be integral to my education and scientific progression.”
“Five years from now, I see myself finishing post-doctoral training in neuroscience in a laboratory that is collegial, active, and located in beautiful climate. After that, it would be ideal to obtain a job performing clinically-oriented research. The cherry on top would be to live in a somewhat rural area and to sustain off the land.”