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Meet Rasika Rao, a Junior Neuroscience and Psychology double major. She is currently working on a research project in Dr. Mohanish Deshmukh’s Neurobiology Laboratory as part of PSYC 395. Dr. Deshmukh and his research team explore how cells regulate their survival and death, and are particularly interested in identifying the unique ways in which different cells control apoptosis. The laboratory focuses on studying how cell survival and death is regulated in neurons, stem cells and cancer cells in cell culture as well as in animal models of neurodegeneration, cancer, and aging.

Tell us about your research Brain cell death, also known as neuronal apoptosis, is a central part of diseases like Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, dementia, and other neurodegenerative conditions. However, the scientific community does not yet know enough about this pathway to identify cures for the aforementioned illnesses. To this end, I have been elucidating the activity of an individual component within the neuronal apoptotic pathway called cJun. I designed and executed an experiment that induced the cell death pathway in neuronal cell cultures over 72 hours. The results suggested possible cyclical activity in cJun, but 72 hours was not long enough to be sure. To further explore this phenomenon and confirm long-term cyclical activity, I am now conducting a replication of the initial experiment, except over 2 weeks instead of 72 hours.

What do you like most? This experiment and other related breakthrough research have the potential to help identify treatments for neurodegenerative diseases. I love that every experiment I execute might take us a few steps closer to giving hope to patients who currently suffer from such conditions. As an undergraduate, I am thrilled to be a part of a larger research community that is performing such cutting-edge research.

Has this experience changed your ideas about research? In many ways, yes. I was surprised by the precision of how research is conducted, requiring me to focus on one chemical at a time to test a specific and testable hypothesis. I also found that research required commitment and tenacity, especially when a mysterious bacterial contamination suddenly prevented the visualization of my experimental results. Conducting research also stimulated me to be more creative and think outside the box to interpret unexpected results. But all these challenges made the completion of my research and the subsequent findings even more rewarding and gratifying.

Our Undergraduate Research Series features spotlights on our Psychology and Neuroscience majors and minors who are conducting undergraduate research with our faculty! We believe strongly that undergraduate experiences are greatly enriched by inquiry and discovery through undergraduate research. Research experiences allow students to better understand literature, determine areas of interest, discover their passion for research, continue on to graduate studies, and to jump start their careers as researchers. If you are an undergraduate who is interested in pursuing research experiences, we offer PSYC and NSCI 395 as an opportunity to work side-by-side with graduate students and faculty members on cutting-edge psychological and neuroscience research. We also recommend you visit the Office for Undergraduate Research to find research opportunities, apply for research funding, and for helpful tools and advice. Research opportunities abound at UNC – find one that works for you!

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