UCI Summer Institute in Neuroscience trains tomorrow’s leaders in neuroscience

Written by Manuella Oliveira Yassa and Raymond Villareal

2022 Irvine Summer Institute in Neuroscience Cohort

2022 Irvine Summer Institute in Neuroscience Cohort.

This past summer, the UCI Center for the Neurobiology of Learning and Memory (CNLM) hosted the first in-person summer programs since the start of COVID-19 stay-at-home orders. Twenty-four students from around the country participated in an 8-week residential summer research program in neuroscience. In addition to conducting research in laboratories, the students participated in cohort-wide activities including workshops on neuroscience methods, professional development opportunities, seminars by faculty and, of course, socials. 

The Summer Institute in Neuroscience program aims to broaden participation in neuroscience by exposing junior scholars to neuroscience research with the goal of preparing them for the rigor of graduate-level research and careers as scientists. The program is funded by two grants. This year, funding from the National Science Foundation and the Department of Defense supported 11 undergraduate students, two high school students and one post-baccalaureate student while funding from the University of California Office of the President supported 10 undergraduate students from Historically Black Colleges/Universities (HBCUs). In addition to providing support for programmatic activities, these two grants fund stipends, meals, and housing accommodations for the summer scholars. 

jason dennis summer institute in neuroscience

Summer Institute in Neuroscience student Jason Dennis worked in the lab of Dr. Javier Diaz Alonso.

“At the core of the Irvine Summer Institute in Neuroscience is a large body of science education research suggesting that participating in authentic, meaningful science research can have significant impacts on the success of junior scholars in science,” says Manuella Oliveira Yassa, the Director of the Irvine Summer Institute in Neuroscience and Principal Investigator on the NSF/DoD grant. “By participating in this program, students engage with real scientists in laboratories where their work contributes to important scientific discoveries. Immersion in the laboratory research ecosystem and engagement with a constellation of mentors allows students to experience what a career in science research might be like.”

The Institute receives many more applications from qualified applicants than it is able to accommodate, making the admission process highly competitive. The program seeks to support students who have a passion for neuroscience and a desire to make an impact on the world through scientific research. 

The program is housed at the CNLM, an interdisciplinary hub that is recognized around the world for excellence in neuroscience research and training. This year, student projects covered a wide range of topics including the impact of trauma on the brain, the effect of early life adversity on memory circuits, mechanisms of neuronal injury in the fruit fly (drosophila), the role of sleep in memory and forgetting, the relationship between Down syndrome and Alzheimer’s Disease, individual differences in spatial navigation, and brain circuits involved in addiction. “The Summer Institute in Neuroscience Program was monumental in solidifying my passion for conducting research, and I would recommend this program to anyone without any reservations. Receiving the opportunity to work with extremely dedicated lab PIs, graduate students, mentors, and peers at a renowned, R1 research facility was life changing. The program provides you with connections that can be strengthened and utilized throughout a lifetime,” says Nishtha Tripathi, a rising third year student at St. Bonaventure University in New York. 

Irvine Summer Institute in Neuroscience at Disneyland

Some Irvine Summer Institute in Neuroscience students took an excursion to Disneyland.

Just as important as the types of research that the students conduct is the quality of the mentorship that they receive from graduate student researchers and faculty. “Our summer scholars are paired with mentors and lab environments that equally prioritize research excellence and responsible mentorship,” says Dr. Autumn Ivy, CNLM Faculty Fellow and Principal Investigator of the UC-HBCU grant. “This is hugely important to the mission of this program—to not only provide a rigorous neuroscience research experience, but also to foster mentor-mentee relationships with their faculty mentor that can support the scholars’ potential research careers beyond their time with us.”

Raven James, a rising fourth year at Xavier University of Louisiana and a 2022 summer scholar reflects on her time at UCI: “This program was about more than the research for me. It was also about the lifelong connections I made with my mentors, fellow cohort, and other graduate students. I also enjoyed the weekend excursions we went on to explore the state of California.” Darrien Coates, a rising third year at Mount Saint Mary’s University shares his favorite part of the summer institute: “Networking. I made countless relationships with so many different types of people from peers to mentors, to advisors, students, to faculty, and so on. These relationships are all something that I am going to cherish, and I cannot wait to continue to build them and see all the awesome things that everyone will do! The power of networking and connections is truly indescribable.”

Raven James with her faculty and graduate student mentors Dr. Autumn Ivy and Anthony Raus

Raven James with her faculty and graduate student mentors Dr. Autumn Ivy and Anthony Raus.

On the last day of the Institute, students shared the results of their research studies at the Summer Research Symposium where they presented short talks and showcased their posters to an audience of CNLM faculty and students as well as parents and community members. The Symposium and Summer Institute concluded with a keynote lecture on the impact of early life exercise on the brain by Dr. Autumn Ivy. 

“Our only chance at cracking the mysteries of something as complex as the brain is to engage a team of scientists with unique perspectives and backgrounds in an environment where different opinions and approaches are encouraged and supported. The Summer Institute in Neuroscience aims to train a diverse and inclusive neuroscience workforce to tackle tomorrow’s greatest challenges.”

If you are interested in supporting the Summer Institute in Neuroscience by sponsoring a student, please contact Manuella Yassa at manuella.yassa@uci.edu.

If you are interested in applying to the Irvine Summer Institute in Neuroscience for participation during the summer of 2023, please click here to join the mailing list.