Brain research is a pretty lofty goal for any student, but lifelong New Jersey resident Maryann Obiorah enjoyed—and excelled at—science from go. She just had no familiarity with career options in that field. “We had lots of physicians in the family, but no basic scientists,” she says.
A Yen to Investigate the Brain
As an undergraduate majoring in biology at Montclair State University, she was introduced to the world of scientific research. “I fell in love with life in the labs,” she states.
So, after graduating with a BS, Obiorah immediately began a master’s degree at the school as part of the National Institutes of Health’s (NIH) Bridges to the Doctorate Program, and then matriculated into the doctoral program at the Rutgers Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences (GSBS) at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School. The Bridges grant provided funds for her tuition and a living stipend for two years.
Life in the Neuroscience Lab
After completing GSBS's core program, which requires students to work in three different labs, she chose brain research as her field. “I was very interested in neuroscience and I really enjoyed the neuroscience lab rotation,” she explains. A couple of years into the program, she joined the laboratory of neuroscientist Emanuel DiCicco-Bloom and began working on the effect of methylmercury—a toxicant found in many fish species—on neurological stem cells in the developing brain. The major sources of methylmercury contamination in fish are industrial emissions, including the burning of fossil fuels, and the disposal of mercury-containing products.
“Did you know that when newborn rats are exposed just once to methylmercury, it can lead to learning deficits in adolescence? And the amount can be pretty small,” Obiorah says.
She explains that after the exposure, neural stem cells start dying in the hippocampus, a region critical for learning and memory, but the behavioral changes often do not show up until weeks later. She was second author on a research paper on the subject, published in Developmental Neurobiology in August 2013, and is working on a second paper that extends this project.
“Our next steps are to figure out the period of vulnerability and why there are learning deficits,” she explains.
In a related project, Obiorah is studying microglia—immune cells in the brain—to see how they react to methylmercury exposure. Last summer she worked in a lab in Paris to learn how to identify microglia in the brain.
The National Science Foundation’s Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship (IGERT) supported her work for two years. In March 2013, she won a much-coveted Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Award from the NIH.
Her Goals Are in Sight
Obiorah, who chose GSBS for the great neuroscience program and because of the diversity of the types of research at the Piscataway facilities, will be awarded her PhD this year. While investigating the brain continues to excite her, she is also fascinated by policy making. And she is studying French on her own with the hope of returning abroad.
The neuroscience student sees a future full of options—now all within her grasp.