Ioana Carcea, MD/PhD

Assistant Professor of Pharmacology, Physiology, and Neuroscience at Rutgers University

What would you say to aspiring scientists? 
“You face constant challenges. It never ends. You always feel the pressure to go a step further. But, if you like doing science, it’s amazing, it’s the best.”

Born in Romania, young Ioana Carcea, PhD spent her summer breaks at her grandparents’ small farm. She took care of the newborn lambs, milked the cows, fed the chickens, and collected honey from the beehives. During these summers of bucolic living, she was quickly hooked onto the natural world, especially the world of animals. “I loved telling my parents and neighbors how interesting animals and insects are,” she says. In middle and high school, biology and organic chemistry became her favorite subjects. “I found that the knowledge [of biology] was easier to digest than other subjects,” she recalls. Like many other students who love biology, she decided to go to a medical school, which in Romania, is a college program, but she wasn’t yet sure whether she wanted to practice medicine.

Towards the end of college, Ioana realized that she was more interested in research than in medicine because she enjoyed pre-clinical disciplines such as histology, physiology, and immunology much more than clinical practice. Additionally, during clinical rotations, she noticed the lack of effective treatments for patients with neurological and psychiatric conditions. The same treatment worked on some patients, but not others. She recognized that our knowledge about brain diseases was incomplete, and that clinical practice was unlikely to address these inadequacies. “I figured that if I can contribute to filling in even a small part of the missing information, perhaps I could help more people than if I practiced medicine,” she says. 

Thinking that studying brain development can ultimately help in developing treatments for people with neurological conditions, Ioana moved from Romania to New York City to join Dr. Deanna Benson’s Lab at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine as a graduate student. “I didn’t know much at the time about how the brain forms, but I knew that if anything goes wrong during this process, it could have serious and long-lasting consequences,” she says.

Ioana was drawn by Dr. Benson’s approach to find an underlying molecular mechanism of complicated human diseases such as autism through histology, genetics, and cellular physiology. She studied how different proteins coordinate to properly wire the brain during development. Any interruption to this coordination can lead to long-term nervous system disorders, including autism. She identified that particular transcription factors, or proteins that regulate gene expression, change a neuron’s ability to respond to a molecule called Semaphorin 3A, which gives the neuron instructions on where to send out its axons. Failure to respond to Semaphorin 3A can prevent neurons from arriving at their final destinations during development.

After spending her PhD on finding cellular-level explanations of autism, Ioana realized that neurological conditions beget behaviors that are far too complex to be understood by studying single neurons and molecules. Wanting to study how populations of neurons work together to generate behaviors, she joined Dr. Robert Froemke’s lab at the NYU School of Medicine for her postdoc. She began studying the relationship between behaviors and the neuromodulatory system, or the part of our nervous system that secretes hormones. These hormones are known to track environmental signals such as risks and rewards, and influence our behaviors and cognition by adjusting our brain to pick up and understand important signals in our surroundings, a skill necessary for survival. 

The nucleus basalis, a part of the neuromodulatory system, is active when we are paying attention to something. Ioana wondered if she can make rats pay attention to certain sounds by stimulating this brain region. She stimulated their nucleus basalis when rats heard specific tones. The pairing changed how the rat auditory cortex processes these sounds and the rats were able to better detect the paired tones than non-paired ones.

In the latter part of her postdoc, Ioana started to focus on finding neural mechanisms of social behaviors, which are sometimes impaired in neurological disorders. She chose to investigate the functions of oxytocin, a neuromodulator known to be involved in social behaviors and emotions. When she started her own lab in 2018 at the Rutgers Brain Health Institute, Ioana decided to incorporate all of the different methodological approaches she had learned throughout her career into studying the roles of oxytocin in triggering social behaviors. “In my own lab, I aim to bring it all together: from molecules, to cells, to circuits and to behavior,” she says. 

In my own lab, I aim to bring it all together: from molecules, to cells, to circuits and to behavior.”

Right now, Ioana’s lab is studying huddling behavior, or when a group of mice pile on one another when they sleep. Specifically, she is researching whether two neuromodulators, oxytocin and vasopressin, are involved in triggering this behavior. “Animals huddle together in order to adapt to the freezing environment,” she says. “On the other hand, when it’s too hot outside, we try to stay away from one another. What drives this behavior? That’s what we are trying to find out.” 

Ioana credits her previous mentors for both professional and personal growth. Through these mentors, she learned not only how to conduct science, but also how to tackle the other responsibilities a principal investigator has, including maintaining a lab and writing grants. Most importantly, she learned to be perseverant. “I don’t know any other job that gets as many rejections as we do. Maybe athletes?” she says. 

Like many academics, Ioana had many fellowship applications rejected, which sometimes made her question her own self-worth. Additionally, one of her job interviews didn’t go well because she was not prepared for a spontaneous meeting with a faculty member who was not on her interviewer list. With these failures, Ioana turned to her mentors for advice. They told her that while it might take time, her work would receive acknowledgement eventually. These experiences of overcoming failures, small or large, have made Ioana resilient. 

“You have to be resilient.”

Since being an inquisitive girl observing animals at her grandparents’ farm in Romania, Ioana has journeyed through the harsh life of academia to become an Assistant Professor with a passion for understanding the neural basis of social behaviors. “You have to be resilient,” she says. “I was very affected by rejections at the beginning, but rejections can turn into stepping stones. It’s really important to put things in perspective, especially in the perspectives of the people who’ve already passed that stage.” 

Ioana Carcea, PhD, is a Professor of Pharmacology, Physiology, and Neuroscience at Rutgers University. Faculty profile

by You-Nah Jeon

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