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Meet Shivam Bhargava, a Sophomore majoring in Neuroscience with minors in Social and Economic Justice and Education. He works in Dr. Jason Stein’s Stein Lab in the Department of Genetics and UNC Neuroscience Center. The Stein Lab explores how variations in the genome change the structure and development of the brain, and in doing so, create risk for neuropsychiatric illness. They study genetic effects on multiple aspects of the human brain, from macroscale phenotypes like gross human brain structure measured with MRI to molecular phenotypes like gene expression and chromatin accessibility measured with genome-sequencing technologies.

Tell us about your research. I am currently working on a project with Rose Glass, a Ph.D. student in the Neuroscience Graduate Program, investigating the developmental origins of cortical surface area hyperexpansion in Autism Spectrum Disorder through studies of iPSCs (induced pluripotent stem cells).

What made you choose the Stein Lab? When I initially wanted to get involved with research at UNC, I wanted to be part of a project that connected with some of my other interests outside of scientific research. In high school, I had done a lot of advocacy and community service work relating to disability rights so I was immediately drawn to Stein Lab because of its research efforts for the autistic community. I thought that it was amazing that I’d be able to combine my passions for social justice with scientific research, and I love how the work done at Stein Lab is all for the social advancements for those with developmental disorders. I also knew that I wanted to do research in an environment that was collaborative in nature and open to undergraduates learning about a multitude of neuroscience topics. I’ve enjoyed the ability to think critically about genetics and neuroscience in a unique research setting that has allowed me to learn about various parts of the human brain.

What do you like most about your work? I love that the work I do in Stein Lab is not monotonous. Everyday when I come to Stein Lab, I am doing something different. Whether that is spending time doing cell culture, learning cryostat techniques, analyzing brain tissue, or having a discussion with PhD students about fascinating neuroscience literature, I am in constant awe at how I have been able to learn various skills and immerse myself in different learning environments. Being in a unique learning environment such as Stein Lab has opened my eyes to the world of research and how it is so important for students to engage in learning experiences outside of the classroom. I also love that the work I do is very collaborative in that I am constantly interacting and engaging with various people. While it is often hard to contextualize the work that I am doing, the collaborative nature of my work allows me to learn from multiple perspectives.

What is the most valuable lesson you’ve learned from this experience? It’s okay to be confused. When I first joined Stein Lab, it was hard to wrap my head around the work that I was doing and what the bigger picture of my project was. I slowly began to realize that an important part of research is to think critically about every step of the research process and that being confused is a part of that process. Being involved in research is not a straightforward path, and you will run into barriers at certain points. However, working through those barriers and asking questions is one of the most valuable lessons that I’ve learned through my experience. There have been times where I’ve been scared or nervous about asking questions, but I’ve learned that being open minded and honest in a research environment is how you will learn the most effectively. Your PI, mentors, and fellow undergraduate researchers are there as resources to help you, and using them as help is such an effective way to get the most out of your experience.

How has the University shut down has affected your research? Thankfully, I’ve still been able to continue to do my research virtually. Through weekly phone calls with Dr. Stein and Rose Glass, I’ve been able to stay on top of my research. Part of my project is to quantitatively analyze microscope images of embryoid bodies, which I’ve still been able to do through the Image J and Cellprofiler softwares. My NSCI 395 Independent Research advisor, Dr. Sabrina Roberston, has also been in regular communication with me about ensuring that I finish my final assignment on time. For those who have been struggling to continue their research because of this shut down, I’ve found that a way to stay productive with your research is to continue to read literature that is related to your project so that you are still engaging with the material associated with your research topic.

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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