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Joanna E

- Research Program Mentor

PhD candidate at University of California San Diego (UCSD)


Topics in neuroscience: Alzheimer's disease, physical activity, sleep, circadian rhythms, Parkinson's disease, neurodevelopment and related disorders, stem cells/organoids, neural circuitry underlying decision-making


I am a third-year PhD student in the neurosciences graduate program at UC San Diego, where I do research on modifiable risk factors in Alzheimer's disease. In particular, I study circadian rhythms, sleep, and physical activity and how they are involved in Alzheimer's disease and mild cognitive impairment. Prior to joining my thesis lab, I studied neurodevelopmental disorders through stem cell/organoid research. During my undergraduate years, I studied vocal dysfunction in Parkinson's disease at the University of Arizona, as well as the neural circuitry underlying decision-making at Princeton University. Overall, I have a wide array of experiences studying diseases that impact the brain, from neurodevelopment to neurodegeneration. I am from Portland, Oregon and I currently live in La Jolla, California. I am Costa-Rican and am proficient in Spanish. Neuroscience is one of my greatest passions and I hope to instill a curiosity over the intricacies of the brain in the students I mentor. Outside of my research, I play sports such as volleyball and soccer, surf, try new restaurants around San Diego, hang with my cat, and attend lots of music festivals and concerts.

Project ideas

Project ideas are meant to help inspire student thinking about their own project. Students are in the driver seat of their research and are free to use any or none of the ideas shared by their mentors.

Curiosity over a concept of the brain? Let's explore.

The brain is a fascinating organ with so many unique mechanistic questions to explore! How do babies simultaneously learn languages? How does phantom limb syndrome work? What causes restless leg syndrome? What is the neurological mechanism of addiction? What do hallucinogens do to the brain? How reliable is human memory? What are dreams? In this project, students will decide on a question they are personally curious about involving neuroscience, and write a review paper on the information that is known underlying the concept, what is unknown, and form hypotheses of their own!

The Benefits of Physical Activity

Are you interested in exercise and want to learn more about it? Exercise has numerous health benefits, including improvements in all-cause mortality, cardiovascular disease mortality, high blood pressure, site-specific cancers, falls-related injuries, sleep, cognitive function, risk of developing Alzheimer's disease, and symptoms of anxiety and depression. In this project, students will investigate how different exercise parameters such as type (weight lifting, aerobic exercise, yoga), timing of the day, frequency, and duration impact health and livelihood. Students can choose what relationship they would like to explore-- eg "How does weight lifting improve cardiovascular health?" or "How does timing of the day of exercise impact sleep?" This project can take form of a research paper, an informative podcast with recommendations on healthy exercise habits, or another format of interest to the student.

Advances in Stem Cell Research

Stem cell research is a rapidly advancing field. Within the past two decades, scientists have been able to model the human developing brain from stem cells, called "cerebral organoids." In this project, students will explore the history of stem cell research and the advances that have occurred to this day. Students may explore the applications of stem cells in research, clinical settings, and industry. Furthermore, students may explore the ethical implications of the field. This project can take form of a research paper, an informative podcast, or another format of interest to the student.

Modifiable Risk Factors in Alzheimer's disease

As there is no known cure for Alzheimer's disease, prevention of the disease is crucial, and there are 13 risk factors that can be modified to decrease risk of developing Alzheimer's disease and related dementias. These risk factors include: high blood pressure, smoking, diabetes, obesity, lack of physical activity, poor diet, high alcohol consumption, low levels of cognitive engagement, depression, traumatic brain injury, hearing loss, social isolation, air pollution, and (potentially) sleep. For this project, students will choose 1-2 modifiable risk factors that they find the most interesting, and investigate the underlying mechanisms of how the risk factor(s) confer higher risk for developing Alzheimer's disease. Alternatively, students may choose to investigate the links between risk factors of interest. This project may take the form of a scientific research paper, an informative podcast with recommendations on healthy lifestyle habits to reduce risk for Alzheimer's disease, or another format of interest to the student.

Languages I know

Spanish, intermediate

Teaching experience

As Spanish is my second language, I taught introductory Spanish to high school students while I was also in high school. In undergrad at the University of Arizona, I was a TA for introductory biology, introductory neuroscience, and cellular neurophysiology and taught numerous sessions in these courses. I have mentored numerous undergraduates when I was a senior undergraduate through peer-mentoring programs. I am currently a TA in my PhD program for the first year neurosciences journal club.


Work experience

Princeton Neuroscience Institute (2020 - 2020)
Undergraduate Intern for Dr. Mala Murthy


University of Arizona
BS Bachelor of Science (2021)
Neuroscience and Cognitive Science
University of California San Diego (UCSD)
MS Master of Science
University of California San Diego (UCSD)
PhD Doctor of Philosophy candidate

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