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‘Embracing Diversity in Science:’ Q&A With Lorianna Colon, PhD, Diversity Fellow

Published on December 6, 2021 in Cornerstone Blog · Last updated 6 months 2 weeks ago


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Lorianna Colon, PhD

Diversity is central to our breakthroughs at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia Research Institute. With a community of scientists from unique backgrounds and academic experiences, we are able to collaborate and confront pediatric problems from a variety of perspectives. In this four-part Q&A series, we're featuring four new scholars in the Postdoctoral Research Fellowship for Academic Diversity program at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. As a key part of CHOP's commitment to diversity, this fellowship funds talented researchers and educators from different backgrounds, races, ethnic groups, and other diverse populations. Join us as these fellows share their areas of research and interest, what diversity in science means to them, and how they spend their hard-earned downtime.

In this Q&A, meet Lorianna Colon, PhD, a scientist studying early life models of neuropsychiatric disorders.

Please tell us about your background, and what compelled you to apply for the Postdoctoral Research Fellowship for Academic Diversity.

I received a dual BA/MA degree in Applied Behavioral Psychology from St. Francis College. While pursuing my degree, I worked as a direct support professional at the Young Adult Institute (YAI) / National Institute for People with Disabilities in Brooklyn, NY. My time with this organization was formative and ultimately led to my pursuit of doctoral work studying neurodevelopment so I could better understand underlying mechanisms driving neuropsychiatric disorders in early life.

I received my PhD in Behavioral Neuroscience from the University at Albany, where I studied how sex influences the neurodevelopment of the brain circuits that support context dependent fear learning and memory in rodent models. Fear is a central component of many debilitating mood, anxiety, and stress-related neuropsychiatric disorders, as individuals diagnosed with mood and anxiety disorders often have difficulty regulating their fear of trauma-associated stimuli. With insight into the sex-specific development of behavioral and neural systems underlying fear learning and memory, I aimed to address risk factors that may lend to mental health challenges. I am excited to continue facets of this work in the lab of Amelia Eisch, PhD, at CHOP.

I applied to the postdoctoral Research Fellowship for Academic Diversity at CHOP because I was excited to work with Dr. Eisch and continue studying neurodevelopment and neuropsychiatric disorders. I was also excited to apply because of the program's commitment to mentorship, establishing a postdoctoral community by cultivating relationships among current and former fellows, and organizing professional activities for career advancement. I feel this type of exposure to a network and career advancing opportunities are essential to my postdoc experience.

Can you describe your area of research, and why you chose it?

My postdoctoral work examines sex differences in behavior and neural development in brain health, injury, and disease. Many neurodevelopmental and neuropsychiatric disorders have a distinct sex bias in their age of onset, prevalence, and etiology. Adverse environmental stimuli such as stress, toxins, or drugs of abuse can govern final outcomes of neural development. Knowledge of sex-specific neurodevelopment, as well as environmental factors that can alter neuro-typical development in a sex-dependent manner, in translationally relevant rodent models of neuropsychiatric disorders may provide novel avenues to psychiatric interventions and treatment, and perhaps aid early diagnosis as well. This area of research draws upon my previous doctoral research and decade-long interest in studying early life models of neuropsychiatric disorders.

What does diversity in research and science mean to you?

Diversity in research and science refers to the inclusion of individuals — students, researchers, and research participants — of various backgrounds, perspectives, experiences, and abilities. The inclusion of trainees and researchers from diverse and underrepresented backgrounds can generate novel scientific hypotheses and studies that can reach underserved and historically excluded populations.

Several groups have been historically excluded from biomedical research (females, people with disabilities, and certain minority groups), which can result in a lack of evidence-based care and lend to greater health disparities. Lack of representation has previously led to biases in basic, preclinical, and clinical research. Embracing diversity and inclusion in science and research will drive future groundbreaking discoveries in the field and better care in clinical settings.

Tell us about a research project you're excited about?

One research project I am excited about is studying the resident innate immune cells of the brain, microglia, and examining whether there are sex differences in cell number and/or morphological features of these cells during early rodent brain development. In addition to supporting the brain's response to disease and injury, a critical function of microglia is to maintain homeostasis and normal function of the brain, serving as regulators of brain development and behavioral function. Multiple lines of evidence point to dysfunctional microglia in nearly all neurodegenerative, and several neuropsychiatric disorders. Sex differences in the quantity or phenotype of these cells in healthy young brains can provide a baseline from which to interpret microglial changes seen after brain injury or disease.

When you're not working, do you have a favorite pastime or spot to relax, enjoy a meal, or be active?

I enjoy the performing arts and try to catch local music, theater, and dance performances taking place when possible. I also find being out in nature to be very relaxing and enjoy exploring nature trails or bringing a book to the park. Having just recently moved to Philadelphia (September 2021), I'm enjoying exploring different neighborhoods and experiencing new restaurants, cafes, and bookstores. I'm looking forward to experiencing the many art venues and museums Philadelphia has to offer!