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Columbia Undergraduates Convene at the Zuckerman Institute to Learn More About a Future in Neuroscience

Undergrads present their research and hear from faculty at day-long meeting

NEW YORK, NY — Graduating Columbia College senior Simon Ogundare took the stage at the Greene Science Center to talk about his research into the effects depression can have on the experience of pain. Next came sophomore Lochlan Krupa, discussing his studies into the genetics underlying fish color and health. Then junior Emily Kalfas shared her research about the neural aspects of emotion. Graduating senior Sam Szalkowski finished off this quartet of reports by presenting his research into the biological basis of aggression in Siamese fighting fish.

The adventure of scientific research at Columbia can begin well before finishing college. These four student researchers recently joined some 50 other undergraduates intrigued by the mysteries of mind and brain to meet faculty and share their early experiences in science in Zuckerman Institute laboratories. 

“You bring us enormous vitality,” said Zuckerman Institute director and CEO Daphna Shohamy, PhD, as she opened the meeting. She also shared an observation with the aspiring neuroscientists in the audience: “It's often the questions from those newest to the field that open up the most fascinating new lines of inquiry.”

The day-long annual Encephalon meeting was organized by the Columbia Neuroscience Society (CNS), an undergraduate group. Established in 2004, they count nearly 1,900 alumni from 65 majors among their participants over the years. The name of the annual meeting, Encephalon, derives from Greek words that mean “inside the head.” 


Haroon Arain and Diana Maria Gilly, co-presidents of the Columbia Neuroscience Society at the time of the Encephalon meeting. (Credit: Columbia Neuroscience Society)


Zuckerman Institute faculty members Steven Siegelbaum, PhD, Daniel Salzman, PhD, Ishmail Abdus-Saboor, PhD, and Bianca Jones Marlin, PhD, complemented the students’ research with discussions of their own neuroscience investigations. Their presentations ranged from newly identified pathways by which lived experience, such as trauma, can be inherited by future generations, to how a part of the brain, the amygdala, represents different emotional states.

Just as important as the presentations were the discussions about how everyone there might help each other. Graduating senior Diana Maria Gilly, a co-president of the Columbia Neuroscience Society, encouraged her classmates to view the group as a resource as they take their next steps in neuroscience. 

“If you are not already working in a lab, send an email. We’ll help,” said Gilly.

Graduating senior Haroon Arain, this year’s other co-president of the group and an aspiring medical student, asked the faculty about what makes all of the effort to be a scientist worth it.

Audience at the Encephalon 2024 meeting. (Credit: Columbia Neuroscience Society)


“What’s so exciting about doing science is the ability to follow your own curiosity,” Dr. Siegelbaum said. “When you’re an undergraduate in our labs, your ideas are valued, you have the opportunity to test them and to revise them depending on what you learn. That’s a great thing about this career path.”

Students noted that CNS is just one among several Columbia organizations available to help undergraduates pursuing neuroscience. Kalfas pointed to Columbia’s Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship, SURF, as her gateway to laboratory experience, which often is a pivotal resume item for getting into a neuroscience graduate program. 

“SURF was my entry into Daniel Salzman’s lab at the Zuckerman Institute,” said Kalfas, who has her sights on a MD/PhD program. 

SURF, along with programs such as the Black Undergraduate Mentorship Program in the Biological Sciences, helps undergraduates seeking research opportunities, and faculty seeking to mentor them, find each other. Columbia Access Neuroscience has a similar mission to open more pathways to PhDs; students, mentors and faculty work to create a more inclusive future for neuroscience. 

At the meeting, faculty also discussed the challenges of a career in neuroscience.

“Your paper might be rejected at first, but the second or third submission might work,” said Dr. Siegelbaum. “You need to have a thick skin and have the ability to persevere,” added Dr. Salzman.

“We have to come at our questions from different viewpoints and that’s one reason why diversity in the laboratory is so important for the future of neuroscience,” noted Dr. Marlin as she discussed her science. “We won’t solve problems if only one group is going to look at them.”

As the meeting closed, Dr. Abdus-Saboor offered a parting piece of advice he never received himself but that he said would have helped him better manage his own professional journey: “Stop planning so much. Roll with it. Enjoy the moment. Things have a way of working out.”

Recent graduate Simon Ogundare and rising senior Emily Kalfas. (Credit: Columbia Neuroscience Society)


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