In the summer of 2021, the Del Monte Institute for Neuroscience Diversity Commission and the City College of New York launched the partnership program NEUROCITY. Using the Summer Scholars Program at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry as a model, organizers created a program that has, to date, put nearly 30 undergraduate students from historically marginalized backgrounds in research labs across the University of Rochester and University of Rochester Medical Center campuses.
“This has been a really rewarding experience,” said Manuel Gomez-Ramirez, PhD, assistant professor of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at the University of Rochester and chair of the Neuroscience Diversity Commission. “It has been great to see these students, many of whom have minimal research experience, come in and do such a phenomenal job in just 10 weeks. The grit, resolve, and commitment they have displayed has been greatly inspirational.” NEUROCITY has created a pathway to neuroscience research and, for some students, has transformed their future plans.
“[NEUROCITY] was a very big reason for helping me figure out what I wanted to pursue after graduation,” said Jose Reynoso, an alumnus of the program who now works in a research lab at the Medical Center. “It is the main reason why I want to go down a research path and pursue graduate school.”
Reynoso grew up in the Bronx. Curious about human behavior since childhood, he credits a high school psychology course for giving him his first glimpse into neuroscience. “That is when I started to learn about the mechanisms in the brain that cause some people to behave differently. That is when I knew I wanted to go into science. I majored in psychology at CCNY, and when I learned about the NEUROCITY program, I saw it as a great opportunity to find out if I wanted to pursue research.”
During his time in NEUROCITY, he was in the lab of Duje Tadin, PhD, professor and chair of the Brain and Cognitive Sciences Department at the University of Rochester. Reynoso was part of a team that developed a new task to measure perceptual decision-making. The experiment aims to improve our understanding of how we make small decisions. Like how our brain determines that a sign is a stop sign when driving through the fog, as opposed to a clear, sunny day.
“There was a clear point where I realized Jose was well suited for research and would excel at it. At our first research meeting, I asked him if he had any questions. At this point, most students ask 1-2 questions. In contrast, Jose pulled out his notebook and went through a long list of questions that showed he was well prepared for the meeting and that he had a good understanding of the research we were discussing,” Tadin said. “Being a mentor in NEUROCITY has been an immensely rewarding experience. Broadening access to research is one of the best things we can do to facilitate scientific advancement.”
When Reynoso was finishing his senior year, he planned to take a year off before deciding if graduate school was the right path for him until he enrolled in the program. But after ten weeks in Rochester, he took his first step toward graduate school and enrolled in the URMC Post-baccalaureate Research Education Program (PREP). As a result, he is now submitting his first first-author paper that investigates reaching movements guided by vision and proprioception. Today, Reynoso is a lab assistant in the Keane Vision & Psychosis Lab at the University of Rochester Medical Center (URMC) and is applying to graduate schools this fall.
“I am very much on board with the philosophy of NEUROCITY—taking bright, motivated students who may have fewer opportunities or more challenging backgrounds and then providing them with experiences, tools, and instruction so that they can successfully pursue a career in neuroscience,” said Assistant Professor of Psychiatry Brian Keane, PhD. “Jose has been fantastic so far. He has jumped right into the varied tasks I have thrown at him. He is highly reliable and a nice person to have in the lab.”
Forging her path to Neuroscience
“It was amazing. Clearly, since I am still here,” Chen Li said. Li participated in NEUROCITY in the summer of 2022. Today, she is a graduate student in the Brain and Cognitive Sciences Department (BCS) at the University of Rochester. “Because the University is an R01 research University, I had access to incredible tools. It showed me what a research career would look like.”
As a NEUROCITY scholar, Li worked in the Dynamics of Cognition Lab at the URMC. Its principal investigator, Ian Fiebelkorn, PhD, assistant professor of Neuroscience, continues to mentor her alongside Assistant Professor Gomez-Ramirez, PhD, principal investigator of the Haptics Lab in BCS. “Before NEUROCITY, I was confused. I did not know if I wanted to pursue my PhD. I had heard horror stories about how difficult it was to be in graduate school,” said Li. “But by the end of the program, I think because of the people I met here, including my mentors, it solidified my decision to come here.”
“Chen has grown exponentially as a researcher throughout the ten weeks in my lab as a NEUROCITY student and now as a graduate student,” Fiebelkorn said. “It has been a pleasure watching her confidence and research skills expand.”
“The NEUROCITY program is an enriching experience, not only for the participants but also for our labs. NEUROCITY students provide enthusiasm and a different perspective on our work, and graduate students and postdoctoral scholars get an important opportunity to provide additional mentorship.”
Li has taken those new skills and confidence and has created a project that utilizes the tools and expertise from the labs of both her mentors. She aims to understand the inner workings of neural modulation that connects the tactile and visual processes—how we touch and see.
“I want to understand how the brain modulates between the two different stimuli,” said Li. “For example, if you were in a task and you were given two sets of stimuli, like visual and tactile, how would your brain process the stimuli together and separately.” She utilizes the Haptics Lab to understand the tactile component and the Dynamics of Cognition Lab to study the visual processes.
“It has been really fulfilling to see the growth that NEUROCITY scholars, like Chen, experience throughout the program,” said Gomez-Ramirez. “Chen started in my lab in the Spring semester of 2023, and she is currently writing a manuscript for publication for a project she recently completed. This level of progress in such a short period is extraordinary and speaks to her level of commitment and determination. And, quite frankly, many of the students in NEUROCITY exhibit these same qualities.”
As a result of the program, NEUROCITY scholars have also been co-authors of peer-reviewed scientific research. Yacinda Hernandez is a co-author of a paper published in PLOS ONE led by Tadin. Jancy Contreras is a co-author on a paper led by Neuroscience Professor Julie Fudge, MD, in Neuroscience.