Third-year undergrad student Ashini Peiris was looking to continue her neuroscience research over this past summer when she learned about the BrainsCAN Diversity in Neuroscience Summer Internship program.
“Diversity in neuroscience – that’s me!” Peiris recalled thinking. “The program was designed for someone like me, someone in a minority. I was just so proud that Western was doing this.”
Peiris was one of seven undergraduate students awarded a Diversity in Neuroscience Summer Internship. The program provides Western University undergraduate students who self-identify as members of visible minorities, Indigenous, LGBTQ2S+, with a disability, or as a woman, an opportunity to have an immersive experience in a cognitive neuroscience research environment. The goal is to give those in marginalized groups the research skills needed to excel in academia and beyond.
“It’s been proven time and time again that underrepresented groups face barriers in research because of systemic biases,” said Fay Harrison, BrainsCAN executive director and co-chair of BrainsCAN’s equity, diversity and inclusion committee. “This program aims to break down barriers and provide undergraduates with research training and experiences to prepare them for future leadership opportunities, all while contributing to the field of cognitive neuroscience.”
Over the summer, interns researched a variety of topics including: working memory and Alzheimer’s disease; music for synchronized movement in Parkinson’s patients; the impact of face masks on emotion recognition; intergenerational transmission of reading and math brain networks; and analyzing the imaging and cognitive testing data of diabetes and metabolic syndrome patients.
“Coming into university, I had heard about research, but didn’t know what it was like,” said Sabrina Yang, a third-year medical science student who interned in Dr. Lisa Saksida’s and Dr. Tim Bussey’s Translational Cognitive Neuroscience Lab at Western’s Schulich School of Medicine and Dentistry. “This summer, I characterized the relationship between working memory and plaques in Alzheimer’s Disease. Looking at pathology and cognitive effects of the disease really affirmed my desire to stay in this research.”
Mohamed Yousif, a summer intern in Dr. Ali Khan’s Computational Imaging Lab at Robarts Research Institute, analyzed a dataset of diabetes and metabolic syndrome patients. He examined potential changes or differences in brain networks, specifically within the hippocampus.
“When you have the process of metabolism being dysregulated during Type 2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome, that can come with a lot of downstream neurological side effects,” said Yousif. “Diabetes is one of those diseases that affects almost everybody. Being able to see what kind of brain changes occur with these different diseases is important to understand.”
After securing her BrainsCAN internship, Peiris created a project examining the neurobiological transmission of math and reading skills from parents to children.
“The purpose of my project was to contribute to the study of learning disabilities,” said Peiris, an intern in Dr. Daniel Ansari’s Numerical Cognition Lab. “I looked at whether we can identify parents and children based on their reading and math network. If a parent’s brain is similar to their child’s brain, why can’t that influence how a child feels toward specific subjects like math and science?”
While the research helped the undergraduate students gain experience, the connections made throughout the summer were just as beneficial. Part of the program involved virtual BrainsCAN panel sessions that showcased the various neuroscience fields, and a day in the life of a Western researcher.
“Being able to hear those viewpoints [from professors and graduate students], it made me realize how much you can do in neuroscience,” said Yousif. “I’m just happy to be within the space.”
For Yang, her experience with Dr. Saksida’s lab helped her find her research identity.
“What’s unique about being surrounded by a lot of other female researchers is that I can see myself in them and I can identify with them,” said Yang. “They really are the embodiment of everything I want to be. I’m really grateful for this opportunity because I wouldn’t have had it otherwise.”
The call for the next Diversity in Neuroscience Summer Internship program will take place in spring 2022.