BrainsCAN Summer Internship Program brings neuroscience research to life for Western undergraduates

September 16, 2021  -  BrainsCAN Communications

Sabrina Yang

Sabrina Yang, a third year medical science student, interned in Dr. Lisa Saksida and Dr. Tim Bussey’s Translational Cognitive Neuroscience Lab as part of the BrainsCAN Diversity in Neuroscience Summer Internship program.

Ashini Peiris was a third year undergraduate student looking to continue her neuroscience research over the summer when she received an email introducing 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 Black, 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 the while contributing to the field of cognitive neuroscience.”

Over the summer, the interns researched a variety of topics including working memory and Alzheimer’s disease, music for synchronized movement in Parkinson’s patients, the impact of 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.

DiN Students 2021

BrainsCAN Diversity in Neuroscience Summer Interns for 2021 - Ashini Peiris, Sabrina Yang, and Mohamed Yousif

“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 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. His work examined if there were any 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 was able to create her own project examining the neurobiological transmission of math and reading skills from parents to children.

“The purpose of my project was to do something to contribute to the field 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. Two virtual BrainsCAN panel sessions were held showcasing 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 those in 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 students awarded a 2021 BrainsCAN Diversity in Neuroscience Summer Internship were Sophie Henke Tarnow, Ashley Li, Ashini Peiris, Yoshan Sasiharan, Sabrina Yang, Mohamed Yousif and Ocarina Zheng. Learn about their research projects.

The call for the next Diversity in Neuroscience Summer Internship program will take place in spring 2022. More information will be posted as it becomes available.


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