Nurturing new neuroscientists

Assistant professor of neuroscience and behavior at Mount Holyoke, Marta Sabariego focuses on sparking that interest in the students who come through her lab.

By Keely Sexton

When Marta Sabariego was a child, she wanted one thing more than anything else for her birthday: a pottery wheel. Her parents, perhaps wanting to avoid the inevitable mess of having a seven-year-old with a potter’s wheel, gave her a microscope instead.

“I was so disappointed,” Sabariego recalled. “But then they started to show me how the microscope worked and how I could see things that you normally wouldn’t see otherwise.”

The birthday disappointment quickly turned into an instrument of discovery, both of Sabariego’s own latent interests and the world of science. “It was the first time I had my curiosity sparked like that. I started becoming more and more excited about it,” she recalled.

Now, as an assistant professor of neuroscience and behavior at Mount Holyoke, Sabariego focuses on sparking that interest in the students who come through her lab. 

Finding her own path

Sabariego grew up in Spain in a family of, as she put it, “humble means.” Her parents did not have the opportunity to pursue higher education, but they impressed upon their daughter a sense of wonder at the natural world from an early age.

“They both really are interested in science,” she said. “They’d read books to me that were related to the universe or biology or plants, and I think that they were instrumental in shaping my passions.”

Knowing that securing financial support was key to her future, Sabariego pursued scholarships and awards to fund her studies, criss-crossing the world as she did so. She worked at the University of Cagliari in Italy, the University of California Irvine and the University of California San Diego before coming to Mount Holyoke. As she made her way into and across the world of academia, she was often keenly aware of her own differences. 

“It is very hard to be in a country that is not your own and where the spoken language is not your own,” she said. “You feel different; no one has your accent or your background.”

Her early fish-out-of-water experiences endowed her with empathy and excitement for the diverse students that grace her lab and classroom today. At Mount Holyoke, she said, the diversity of the student body is one of the primary strengths of the community.

“It has been amazing to talk to students and to see in the classroom a reflection of my background. I see people coming from different countries, I see people with accents and I see them being brilliant and being excited,” she said. “It makes me feel at home.”

A new challenge

When Sabariego came to Mount Holyoke in 2019, she set up a lab with a handful of students to run experiments focused on understanding how memories are made and stored in the brain. She also wanted to imbue diverse students with a vision of success.

“Students get very overwhelmed when they see the career path of ‘big deals’ in our field,” she said. “I always tell them that no one starts at that point. You have to work on it and get all those things, little by little, and persevere to meet your goals,” she said.

Together with her students, she implemented a technique that enabled them to quantify lesions in rat brain sections. She co-authored a paper on their findings with student Safa Jawad ’21 in the prestigious neuroscience journal Hippocampus, where the work was featured on the cover. 

Things were going swimmingly, but in the late winter of 2020, Sabariego was looking forward to going back to her lab after her maternity leave when the COVID-19 pandemic hit and the students who had been working in her on-campus lab had to work from their homes.

In-person lab work was no longer an option and Saberiego and her students had to coordinate from their respective homes in Spain, Greece, Tanzania and the United States.

Sabariego met this unexpected challenge with a redoubled commitment to helping her students find their footing in their careers. Instead of focusing on the things that they could no longer do, Sabariego seized the moment as a chance to advance her students’ careers and to add something meaningful to the field of neuroscience. 

“We decided to work on a protocol paper, writing about how to perform experiments using this novel task that we developed, so instead of having a year without doing anything related to research, I saw this was an opportunity for them to feel involved in the project remotely.”

Students worked on the protocol paper collaboratively from where they were around the world, meeting regularly on Zoom across different time zones and life circumstances to produce a protocol paper that described their experimental research methods in detail so that they could carry out this task on their return to campus. Writing this paper also made their methods available to other labs to replicate their research.

“I wanted them to develop the soft skills you need in the field: how to give and receive feedback without offending people, how to do literature searches,” Sabariego said.

Eleftheria Vogiatzoglou ’23, contributed from her hometown of Aravissos, Greece, where she helped run her family’s bakery in between meetings with her collaborators. As a published author on a protocol paper, she feels the field has opened to her in a new way. 

“Having your name on a published paper sets you up for applying to work, for applying to graduate school,” she said. “It shows that you can do research and you can write a paper.”

Recently, Vogiatzoglou and another of Sabariego’s students, Saee Chitale ’22, won an award from the Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students for the presentation of their findings. Each of them worked on a poster and had an opportunity to engage in scientific discussion with experts in the field and with students from other institutions. 

“This was a great networking opportunity and a way to practice communication skills while explaining their research findings. Both students are now seriously considering going to graduate school to get their doctorates in neuroscience,” said Sabariego.

Into a new future

Currently, there are two main projects in the Sabariego lab. In one project, students are assessing the role of the hippocampus in adjustment to reward loss and how this role might be different in male and female rats. In the second project, students are characterizing working memory in a rat model of ADHD, with a special focus on female rats, as much of the existing body of research is derived from data on male animals. 

“My approach is to form the next generation of neuroscientists,” said Sabariego. “I try to empower my students to know that if they work hard, they can achieve their goals. I try to translate my passion for what I do to them and motivate them to follow their dreams.”

Sabariego is now looking forward to a spring semester collaboration with Barbie Diewald in the dance department, where they aim to choreograph and embody the functions of the hippocampus. Sabariego is excited about this next venture.

“This course will provide a research site to investigate hippocampal functions like memory and imagination through dance, bridging the gap between science and art at Mount Holyoke College,” said Sabariego.

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