PhD Student at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai
Being a neuroscientist was not the original career plan of Angélica Minier-Toribio, a current 4th year graduate student at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. While an undergraduate majoring in Hispanic Studies at the University of Puerto Rico (UPR), Angélica initially aspired to become a psychiatrist. She’d always wanted a career path that could benefit others while tapping into the side of her that loved storytelling, literature, and the humanities. Since she had a general interest in science too, becoming a psychiatrist would allow her to help patients by listening to their stories. Perhaps in the process, she might make a fascinating discovery about the mystery that is the human psyche.
However, Angélica’s plan was derailed one day when she stumbled upon a scientific poster hung on the walls of the neuroscience department at UPR. The poster detailed an experiment examining the neurobiology behind remembering a fearful event. What initially stopped Angélica was not the experiment itself, but the poster’s quoting of “Funes the Memorious,” one of her favorite short stories by famed Argentinian writer, Jorge Luis Borges. This story tells the tale of a man who injures his head after falling off his horse and, in the aftermath, is miraculously blessed (or cursed) with the talent of remembering absolutely everything. Reeled in by this connection with science to one of her favorite stories, Angélica saw memory in a new light: “I was so fascinated by the idea that you can actually access and physically study memories. That was something that was so foreign to me.”
Inspired and curious to learn more about neuroscience, Angélica reached out to the author of the poster. Although she found out that the investigator of the study was retiring, she was referred to a collaborator, Dr. Gregory Quirk, who was conducting similar work in his own lab. With no time to waste, she soon found herself boldly walking into Dr. Quirk’s laboratory where she struck up a conversation with the nearest graduate student, received a lab tour, and was offered an interview for a research position.
“I was so fascinated by the idea that you can actually access and physically study memories. That was something that was so foreign to me.”
Despite her initial boldness, Angélica confesses her lack of experience initially made her concerned she was diving into something out of her depth. “I had no idea what neuroscience was… I thought I wasn’t ready,” she says. She had little exposure to the research process and she knew no one around her growing up who had pursued a PhD in science. Serious science career opportunities were sparse in Puerto Rico, and aside from taking science classes in preparation for medical school, her passion up to this point had been literature and psychiatry. The encouraging feedback she received during her interview – “‘All you need is motivation and to be interested'” – instilled her with the confidence to make her first leap into science in a laboratory setting.
In the lab, Angélica blossomed into an astute and careful researcher. She worked with a postdoctoral fellow, Dr. Fabricio H. Do-Monte, to understand how a brain region important in regulating emotional response, the paraventricular thalamus (PVT), is involved in controlling reward-seeking behavior. To do so, she taught rats to press a lever to obtain a sugar pellet, and used a drug to effectively “shut off” the PVT during situations when reward was purposefully omitted. These types of studies can help us understand the brain regions that contribute to addiction and drug abuse. Initially, she believed there was no effect of their manipulations. But, as she meticulously pored over recorded behavior videos of the rats, Angélica made a fortuitous scientific observation. She noticed the rats that were trying harder to obtain sugar pellets had a specific part of the PVT shut-off. This discovery meant that certain parts of the PVT are important for persistently pursuing rewards. Angélica and Dr. Do-Monte’s remarkable and unexpected discovery was eventually published in Neuron, a well-regarded scientific journal.
“I had no idea what neuroscience was… I thought I wasn’t ready”
Despite this accomplishment, she remains modest and emphasizes the important role that mentorship played in giving her the confidence and freedom to make this discovery. “The way [my lab] approached science was very healthy,” she says, as its members were always encouraged to find a “silver lining” when things didn’t work out according to plan. “Every lab meeting, when someone would present, we had to have a section on how to address challenges.” Each hardship or mistake was treated as a learning opportunity.
In addition to great mentorship, Angélica’s lab was rich in more ways than one. Generally, “resources are not there,” she says of research funding in Puerto Rico. In the Quirk lab, however, she found the exception: this was a laboratory that was doing cutting-edge science. This was no accident. It turns out that, despite many opportunities elsewhere, Angélica’s mentor purposefully opened his laboratory in Puerto Rico so he could prioritize increasing access to neuroscience in traditionally underrepresented communities in science. Of her former mentor, she says, “When he got there, he knew that it would be a challenge because he would find students that had no experience. He would [have few] colleagues in neuroscience, so it would not be easy to collaborate. It would be hard to get funding…He knew that and saw it as an opportunity to bring that [to Puerto Rico].” His remarkable influence on the neuroscience community has led to a string of successful trainees, which now include Angélica. “We call it the Quirk Legacy,” she says.
Angélica’s fruitful undergraduate research experience solidified her decision to continue in neuroscience and pursue a PhD. However, after college, she wasn’t quite ready to start graduate school yet. A fascinating seminar she attended on rodent models of drug addiction led to her next opportunity. She contacted the seminar speaker, Dr. Yavin Shaham, and soon moved to Baltimore, Maryland to join his lab at the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) as a post-baccalaureate researcher. There, she used rat models to investigate the brain mechanisms behind relapse to different drugs of abuse, such as oxycodone and cocaine.
As excited as she was about the work, the transition wasn’t without its challenges. For the first time, Angélica was leaving her friends, her family, her culture, and her island to come to the continental US. “It was my first time away from home,” she recalls. Frequent calls to her family were essential during this time. Although the culture shock was challenging, her interest in the work was motivating, and she found solace in a close friend at NIDA who also came from Puerto Rico. Gradually, she adjusted. Now, Angélica has lived in the mainland US for many years, and though the toll of prolonged separation has been easier to deal with, it has never fully faded. “Continuously not being home is the constant sacrifice that I’m making,” she admits, “Although home can change, I still feel like home is back in Puerto Rico.”
“Continuously not being home is the constant sacrifice that I’m making”
Currently, as a PhD student in the laboratory of Dr. Eric J. Nestler, Angélica is studying the neurobiology of stress susceptibility using a mouse model of stress called chronic social defeat. In this model, mice are exposed to multiple days of social stress to induce a depression-like state. Interestingly, some mice end up naturally more resilient to developing depressive-like symptoms than others. Angélica is actively working on developing new behavioral tests that can better indicate if a mouse is “depressed” or more resilient to the stress of social defeat. She is ultimately interested in investigating differences in the brain between these susceptible and resilient mice.
Although she’s had a blast in graduate school so far, Angélica confesses that it has not always been smooth sailing. “I’ve had so many failures, like everyone in science,” she says. “I do think we should talk more about it.” For her, one particular disappointment stings more than the rest. During her first year as a PhD student, Angélica was examining the influence of early life stress on the tendency to develop addiction in adulthood using mouse models. However, the project proved to be quite technically challenging and she did not get the data she was expecting. It was a frustrating experience, but she drew on the cumulative lessons she’s learned from her past mentors to help her “fail forward” and treat mistakes as learning opportunities: “Having that training… knowing there are things you sometimes cannot control and accepting that, and learning how to just move forward has helped me.”
“There’s still a lot we don’t know… There are still questions to be answered.”
During moments when Angélica does have time to be away from her experiments, she likes to tap into her love of the humanities. Whenever she has time, she pursues photography and fictional writing. “I love writing, I think it’s my true, true background,” she says. Looking ahead, Angélica is interested in potentially running her own laboratory one day, although she is also excited and open to the many different possibilities that earning a PhD in neuroscience can provide. When asked how she normally stays motivated and grounded in light of her scientific achievements she says: “There’s still a lot we don’t know… There are still questions to be answered.”
by Michelle Jin