Cynthia Chai ’14 Wins Neuroscience Award

Cynthia Chai ’14 (right) receives her award at the NEURON conference.

Of the 100 or so students at last month’s North East Undergraduate Research Organization for Neuroscience (NEURON) conference, 30 were Mount Holyoke women. One of them, Cynthia Chai ’14, walked away with the event’s sole award.

Although she’s a neuroscience major now, Chai came to MHC from Malaysia planning to study international relations. Economics courses led to an interest in human economic behavior, which has strong links to neuroscience. Now, she says, “I’m really interested in decoding the neurocircuitry underlying animal behavior.”

For the work that won Chai the award at NEURON, she uses animals—fruit flies to be precise—to search for clues that might ultimately shed light on Alzheimer’s disease.

Specifically, Chai uses transgenic lines of fruit flies to increase or decrease the presence of specific molecules in a fly’s eye. Using a light microscope to spot the differences—whether the eyes appear diseased or normal—Chai examines whether certain molecules cause a particular Alzheimer’s-disease-associated protein to be more or less toxic.

The idea is to determine if octopamine receptors are related to changes in the eyes. If so, then the human version of octopamine, norepinephrine, may be related to changes that occur in Alzheimer’s patients’ brains.

“On a broad level, this research is significant because people are still struggling to understand Alzheimer’s on a molecular level,” Chai says. “This is a good springboard to a new avenue of scientific inquiry.”

Chai is pursuing this line of research for her senior thesis, advised by Kenneth Colodner, visiting assistant professor of neuroscience. She is part of his lab group, which meets every Monday, and which gave her practice making research presentations. That experience, Chai says, made giving a poster presentation at the recent conference much easier.

“I don’t think I could have done so much without the help and input from my supportive lab members, my academic advisor Gary Gillis, and my thesis adviser Ken Colodner,” she says.

Although happy her work was recognized at the NEURON conference, Chai says “the experience of meeting people, listening to their ideas, and seeing how excited they were about their own discoveries” was what made the event particularly fulfilling.

—By Emily Harrison Weir