Rianne Stowell, Ph.D., (’19) is a postdoctoral associate in the lab of Kuan Wang, Ph.D. Her research focuses on adolescent development of the dopaminergic system, the collection of
neurons in the brain that synthesize and release dopamine — the neurotransmitter most commonly associated with the feeling of pleasure.
“My interest in this research stems from its unique relevance to psychiatric disorders, such as schizophrenia,” Stowell said. “A lot of these disorders arise during adolescence and that’s when certain circuits like the dopaminergic system are still maturing.”
Stowell is focusing on the neuronal and microglial mechanisms of dopaminergic plasticity, and their behavioral implications within the mesocortical pathway — a brain circuit responsible for motivation, emotion, and executive function — in an effort to gain a better understanding of the role the dopaminergic system plays in healthy adolescent brain development.
“This science is personal. My grandmother, on my mom’s side, actually had schizophrenia, and as a result, couldn’t hold a job or really function very normally in society. She certainly had it at a time when treatments are worse than what we have now, but we still don’t have good treatments for the aspects of the disease that make it hard for people to work.”
Stowell’s passion for neuroscience extends beyond the lab and into her art. Her paintings are inspired by the images she finds at the other end of microscopes. Her first published piece of art donned the cover of the journal Developmental Neurobiology. In addition to the cover art, Stowell’s first, first-authored paper — “Cerebellar microglia are dynamically unique and survey Purkinje neurons in vivo” — was published in the same issue.
Below: Acrylic painting by Stowell that depicts microglia (green) and dopaminergic axons in (red) as seen through in vivo two-photon imaging in an awake transgenic mouse a with cranial window preparation. It is an artistic rendition of the relationship between microglia and dopaminergic midbrain neurons projecting to the frontal cortex. While the painting depicts a still moment, the relationship between these two cell types is a dynamic one and to capture that light blue orbs are shown to represent dopamine being released at axonal terminals (these are not visible during an imaging session).