Postdoctoral Neuroscientist at Columbia University
What would you say to aspiring scientists?
“Be persistent and be determined. When looking for support or picking a lab, find a mentor who will guide you to be a really good scientist—don’t be driven by flashy science.”
As a child, Dr. Erica Rodriguez would sometimes hide in the bathroom and mix different solutions she found under the sink “just to see what comes out.” Her concoctions of baby powder and lotion never yielded anything beyond messy play-doh, but her affinity for tinkering with things led her to more complex experiments for her elementary school’s science fairs. Today, she is a postdoctoral neuroscientist in Dr. Daniel Salzman’s lab at Columbia University.
Erica’s interest in neuroscience stems from a fascination with patterns in human behavior. In high school, her curiosity about patterns in empire formation drew her to history classes. Of particular interest was the cyclic process by which Chinese dynasties rose and fell: “Each Chinese dynasty brought to the table unique cultural ideas to the society, but [their rise and fall] were variations of the same pattern of human behavior.” Erica continued studying history after leaving high school, but she began wondering about the influence of individual people to these cyclic patterns after taking an AP Psychology class. She found herself especially intrigued by the biological basis of human behavior.
This newfound interest in the mind and brain motivated Erica to complete two majors while she was a Macaulay Honors student at CUNY Queens College: one in Biology & Neuroscience and another in Psychology. Despite the busy course load, she managed to squeeze in a history minor and continue her high school sport of varsity swimming. Her initial goal after graduation was to apply for medical school to become a psychiatrist, so her main focus was on completing the necessary prerequisites and gaining research experience.
Meeting neuroscientist Dr. Carolyn Pytte after her first year of college changed those plans. She interviewed with Dr. Pytte for an undergraduate research position and learned about her research on neurogenesis, the process by which new neurons are formed from neural stem cells. Erica remembers thinking, “I want to study that! We can apply this [neurogenesis research] to stem cell research; this could pave the way for some therapies—that’s awesome!” For three years as an undergraduate, she conducted research with Dr. Pytte on the relationship between behavior and the formation of new neurons in the adult songbird brain. She found that when birds do not have the ability to sing, the new neurons that usually form in the brain during this process did not grow, suggesting that neurogenesis is required for song learning in birds. After being inspired by Dr. Pytte’s work and learning how exciting scientific research could be, Erica decided she wanted to become a neuroscientist.
As the first person in her family to pursue a PhD, Erica says she applied to graduate school rather “blindly” because she knew little about the prestige of different programs or schools. After receiving offers from Duke and Rutgers, she leaned toward Rutgers because it was closer to her family in New York City. Dr. Pytte convinced her, however, that the best move for her career would be to venture farther and attend Duke. “I’m very glad I followed her advice,” Erica admitted.
Moving from the Big Apple to the small, quiet town of Durham, North Carolina was a bit shocking at first. But, over time, she grew to appreciate having evenings free from the racket of New York City traffic. While at Duke, her journey through science was less straightforward than she had hoped it would be. In her first year of graduate school, the advisor Erica decided to work with turned out to be a poor mentor and she felt that she needed to leave the lab. “I was really focused on picking a lab aligned with my scientific interests and not who I wanted to learn from,” she says. Thankfully, the head of the department and chair of graduate studies were very supportive in helping her switch labs. “I’m one of the fortunate few,” she notes, because “I know of many cases where people can’t switch labs and leave the program… If I hadn’t [switched labs], I would have left science completely.” Looking back at her time in the first lab, she wishes she hadn’t ignored the red flags and instead had done some “deep soul searching about what it is that I want to gain from getting a PhD.”
“[I wish I had done some] deep soul searching about what it is that I want to gain from getting a PhD.”
Erica was advised for the majority of her PhD by Dr. Fan Wang, who provided “a wonderful support system” while they both studied heightened pain perception in the face and how this kind of pain affects emotions. Although it was not the research she aimed to perform at Duke, she ended up being fascinated by the science and found a personal connection to it. “It is assumed that humans perceive pain more in the face than in the body,” Erica explained, and “it is definitely the case for mice,” the model organism she used. She sought to understand the brain mechanisms that make pain more strongly perceived in the face than in the body. Using the chemical compound capsaicin to induce pain, she discovered a specific neural circuit that is responsible for heightened facial pain perception in mice. Given her own experience with chronic pain after herniating two discs during high school and college, this work studying “how we perceive pain and how that amplifies stress, anxiety, and fear… was in a way personal, and personally satisfying.”
The personal satisfaction Erica derives from her scientific research is evident in the artwork she enjoys creating on the side. After submitting a paper on her pain research, she began tinkering with fancy graphic design software to create an art piece for the journal’s cover. Inspired by her research and Edvard Munch’s “The Scream,” she spent two weeks illustrating a mouse clutching its face in agony as it stands before a fiery sunset and two chili peppers, where capsaicin is naturally present. Given her apparent talent, it is surprising that Erica is a self-taught artist. These days, when she has spare time, she continues to experiment with different art media. She hopes aspiring scientists know how important it is to have work-life balance and that while research can be part of a good life, it does not have to be the only thing.
Erica’s creative reinterpretation of “The Scream” by Edvard Munch, inspired by her graduate research on heightened pain perception in the face using mice as model organisms. She submitted this cover art alongside one of the papers she published (it unfortunately was not selected to be the journal’s cover art, but we are excited to share it here!).
Since finishing graduate school, Erica has taken her research in a new direction. After studying chronic pain and its effects on how we feel, while also reflecting on her own experience with chronic pain, she wanted to understand how our reactions to pain can be influenced by social context. In her current research, she is studying how different social situations shape decision-making more generally. Consider, for example, how a young student may react to facing a bully when they are alone as compared to when they are surrounded by a group of supportive friends. What is going on in the brain when the student is deciding whether to avoid or confront the bully in these two situations?
Erica hopes to investigate the role of social contexts in emotional behavior in her own lab one day. “We’re all social creatures and we rely on each other’s interactions,” Erica points out. “I think that gets at the heart of what we do as humans,” she says, “We make so many decisions based on social interactions or lack thereof… I think this is a fundamental question we should be asking.”
by Alice Xue