Graduate Student Spotlight
Kristin Anderson is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Integrative Biology / Neuroscience program
Kristin came to Lehigh in 2013 from Rider University where she earned a B.S. in Neuroscience. At Rider she joined a research lab and quickly fell in love with the research process and thrill of discovery. Through this she knew she wanted to pursue a research career and she set her sights on graduate school. Two days after graduation, Kristin moved to Bethlehem to start her first summer at Lehigh as a graduate student mentor for the Biodynamics Summer Institute (BDSI) program with Drs. Julie Miwa and Amber Rice. After the summer project ended, Kristin wanted to continue working in the multidisciplinary neuroscience lab that is the Miwa Lab and officially joined. At the time, it was a new lab and she looked forward to the challenge of helping to build up a lab, set up new techniques, and to explore new avenues within the vast framework of possibilities in scope of the Miwa lab research.
The broad research question of the Miwa lab asks what is the cellular basis of behavioral adaptation that allows an individual to successful navigate a complex environment. One such behavior that is essential, but can hinder individuals, is anxiety. The anxiety response is a normal and adaptive reaction to a stressor; however, disorders can develop when individuals cannot properly regulate the response. Currently, anxiety disorders rank amongst the most prevalent and disruptive diagnosed mental disorders while simultaneously having largely ineffective treatments. To address this, Kristin has developed a thesis studying the role of a candidate gene, lynx2, in anxiety mechanisms.
The lynx genes are regulators of the cholinergic system, an influential neurotransmitter system that is implicated in many important complex processes and behaviors such as learning, memory, and anxiety. The cholinergic system operates on a continuum of activation and the lynx genes exert top down control, acting like brakes, on the system. This braking action helps to maintain an optimal level of activation and functioning. In the case of lynx2, when removing the brake via genetic engineering, there is an increase in generalized anxiety-like behaviors in mice. Kristin was very interested though in expanding this beyond generalized anxiety by understanding how learning plays a role in developing anxiety over time. In addressing this, Kristin discovered mice lacking a lynx2 gene have the inability to quell a learned fear. This mimics post-traumatic stress disorder where there is an inappropriately large response to triggers. She has shown that normal anxiety can be restored through a combination of pharmacology targeted at the cholinergic system and behavioral training. Additionally, Kristin focally delivered therapeutics directly into the anxiety region of the brain and also restored normal levels of anxiety. To connect this knowledge of lynx2 from mouse models to humans, she began to look at the lynx2 gene in humans where she found naturally occurring mutations in the human lynx2 gene that affected behavior, suggesting that understanding the mouse model is applicable to human anxiety. This novel human-mouse study can one day be used to help anxiety sufferers. Through this research Kristin has been awarded with the Marjorie Nemes Fellowship, Lehigh University College of Arts and Sciences Graduate Student Summer Fellowship, and the Lehigh University Graduate Student Research Grant.
In the Miwa lab, Kristin, along with Dr. Miwa, have endeavored to provide an environment in which undergraduates can engage in research and develop scientific thinking. She has taken joy in mentoring undergraduates through research, and in seeing the students experience scientific discovery for the first time. Through programs such as BDSI, Lehigh’s Mountaintop Initiative, and from student lab members she has trained over 30 undergraduate students at Lehigh. Kristin has also served as vice president of BOGs, the biology graduate student organization, and along with her fellow officers, helped to setup a guidebook for incoming students along engaging in outreach events such as the Bio Fair at Broughal Middle School and the LV Science Fair. Through such outreach events Kristin developed a passion for public outreach and advocacy. She joined the Society for Neuroscience advocacy team and began immersing herself in advocating for science funding and science-based policy. Kristin has spoken out on Capitol Hill with Congressional leaders and Appropriations Committee members at events such as the Rally for Biomedical Research and Society for Neuroscience’s Hill day to advocate for robust and sustained funding for the National Institutes of Health. She has also spoken out in local papers and town hall meetings as a science advocate.
In her free time Kristin enjoys cooking, finding new coffee shops, training for and competing in Spartan Races, and eating delicious treats from Vegan Treats Bakery!
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