Hometown: Naperville, Illinois
Kristin Sellers’s path to Neuroscience started in a summer Psychology course she took at Cornell while she was a high school student. “It was a social psychology course at Cornell and I loved it. My big question I wanted to answer at the time was: ‘why do people do what they do, especially when it’s maladaptive?’ and this major sounded perfect because it combined psychology with human biology.” Kristin was personally motivated to pursue a career in this field because she had a friend in high school who struggled with mental health. Because of this experience Kristin was intensely focused on understanding the underlying causes of mental illness.
Following the plan she set out for herself, Kristin enrolled at Cornell as a Human Development major with a plan to enter the field of Clinical Psychology after graduating. However she started to feel an urge to go deeper, to answer more focused questions about the human brain and began to take Neurobiology & Behavior courses. She started working in research labs focusing on human neuroscience. Some of her experiences included work in a neuroimaging lab and, for her senior thesis, an analysis of NSCAW (National Survey of Child and Adolescent Well Being) data. These experiences taught her that she really liked research and cemented her decision to apply to graduate school.
Kristin ultimately decided to attend UNC because she learned about the Translational Medicine Training program which provides an opportunity to blend lab work and clinical research into a thesis project. “Although I was consciously moving into more applied research areas, I still really wanted to be working on a human problem. I was really excited to learn UNC had a program that was specifically designed to keep me in touch with the clinical side of my research without requiring me to get an MD. Other schools I applied to said it was possible to set up shadowing experiences, but UNC was the only school that had a formal program that incorporated this into the training experience.” Having the hospital campus physically connected to the basic science campus was also very important to Kristin.
Kristin chose Flavio Frohlich’s lab for her thesis work. “The work was really challenging because I’d never done electrophysiology, or any wet lab research, and there was a steep learning curve. But Flavio’s enthusiasm is infectious and he’s really positive and upbeat.” The Frohlich lab is focused on developing novel brain stimulation treatments for mental illness and other neurological disorders. Kristin explains: “All people have ongoing brain activity that can organize into oscillations. The oscillations are important for organizing activity across the brain in healthy individuals. In a number of psychiatric conditions these oscillations are altered. For example, in schizophrenia a certain type of oscillation is too low. Our hypothesis is that if we can correct this abnormal level of oscillations we could correct some of the deficits caused by schizophrenia. Instead of using a drug we deliver a very mild electrical stimulation via electrodes. We are trying to boost the activity in the correct way, at the correct time to correct diseases.”
Her advisor Flavio Frohlich says “Kristin is incredibly hardworking and will graduate with a well-deserved set of publications including four first-author papers.” Her work has made important contributions to the basic science of understanding how brain activity organizes and brain networks interact, work that is critical for informing the rational design of future brain stimulation paradigms. Among other things, Kristin led a study showing that anesthesia affects neural activity differently in various cortical layers (link to paper). In her more translational work, she showed that transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS), a widely-studied method of non-invasive brain stimulation, may not be beneficial for the improvement of cognitive performance, as measured by an IQ test (link to paper). She is currently working on uncovering how two brain areas, the prefrontal cortex and posterior parietal cortex, work together during attention-demanding behavior.
During her time at UNC Kristin was awarded a fellowship in the Translational Medicine Training Program. One of the most influential parts of the program for Kristin was the Closed Door Series in which a current student talks about their research and then a clinician talks about the disease that research targets and how the trainee’s research relates to clinical treatments. She said “When I’m stuck in lab and something is not working it gets really frustrating. Seeing a case study presented about a real person, a real patient, and how the research is directly impacting the clinician in practice is so helpful. Linking the two together is really motivating and gives me perspective”. She also described the unique experience of shadowing clinicians in the operating room when a patient was having a Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS) device implanted and then being there on a clinic day when doing follow up with a DBS patient. “I got to talk to the patient about how his device is working and about any changes in his quality of life. These experiences are ones I never imagined I’d be able to have as a graduate student.”
In addition to her passion for neuroscience, Kristin is a competitive runner. She ran in high school and walked on to the track team at Cornell. Here in NC, Kristin joined an elite running team and has continued running competitively throughout graduate school. She says she loves her running group which is a diverse group of women including other professional students and individuals not affiliated with UNC at all. Kristin parlayed her love of running into a science outreach and service project when she volunteered to help organize the annual DNA Day 5K run organized by the UNC Office of Graduate Education. “The 5K is a really fun event that raises money for science outreach efforts led by graduate students. Everyone who participates in the race wants to be there, is committed to the cause. People get really into it and even dress up in costumes. ”
Kristin plans to graduate this spring. For a time Kristin seriously thought about going into industry. To learn more about this career she took advantage of a new opportunity at UNC – the Immersion Program to Advance Career Training (ImPACT) program and was awarded a funded internship with Cato Research, a contract research organization in Durham. Kristin says “This was a fantastic opportunity to see how industry compares to academic bench science.” Her advice for incoming students is to be open to learning new things. “It sounds a little cliché since that’s what graduate school is all about. Yet when I look back, I’ve learned so many things that seem on the surface totally unrelated to neuroscience but which turned out to be required to get things done. I’ve learned image processing, soldering, circuit design, 3D printing, woodworking to build behavior chambers, and code validation for analysis. So you can’t be afraid of trying something new.”
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