Interview with Cognitive Neuroscientist Judy Lobo

Judy Lobo is a cognitive neuroscience graduate student at the University of Miami. She uses functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and cell staining methods to study the links between health and cognitive abilities. fMRI is a technique for measuring brain activity and cell staining is used to better visualize cells and cell components under a microscope. Her Master’s project was one of the first fMRI investigations into Successful Cognitive Aging or “SuperAgers”. As a part of the BREATH Lab at the University of Miami, she also works with HIV populations. Their current work focuses on the mind-body interactions between chronic inflammation and the disruption of functional brain activity. We are excited to interview Judy about her research, fighting Alzheimer’s disease (AD) and the role of exercise in cognitive decline. Follow her on Twitter @judi_diane

Can you tell us about your journey in science?

I am an unlikely member of the academic community. I am a mixed-race, Honduran American student and I do notice that I rarely see students like me (much less faculty) that understand where and what I come from. I am now in my third year of graduate school and finally feeling like I can catch the flow of research life, however, this was after an intensive cultural immersion into the academic environment. I must admit that I do love it, I love learning about the brain and rubbing elbows with people who are equally passionate about my field. This was a world I waited for years to be admitted into.

What areas of research are you currently pursuing?

I am part of a very interdisciplinary lab. I concentrate my efforts on fMRI analysis and how we can use it to understand and treat memory loss. I am interested in the mysterious phenomena of “SuperAgers”, older adults that are still as sharp as individuals who are 20 to 30 years old. I study their brain activity and how that contributes to their “special” abilities. However, there is another side to my research. I study brain activity changes due to exposure of HIV-disease as well as cell staining and cell cultures. I use these methods to investigate how inflammation relates to brain activity and memory abilities. *Cell culture is the process of obtaining cells from a plant or animal and then growing them in an artificial environment.

What’s one piece of advice you would give early career researchers?

Broadly, learn to work and study with others. As you get to advanced stages of your academic career, two heads truly are better than one.

How can science communication contribute to fighting against AD?

I think this is a vital piece that AD research needs right now. First of all, awareness of what AD is and how it can be prevented. Prevention is our best weapon against AD right now and it is possible to do so with simple life changes. Greater awareness also has a feedback effect; if more people knew about our research I also think more of them would volunteer for the studies and support our efforts.

What’s one recommendation you’d give people wanting to reduce their risk of AD?

Exercise. It’s the best intervention or treatment we have so far for cognitive decline.

What are you most proud of in your life?

At the moment, I am most proud of my current position. I would have been a happy teenager if someone told me that I would be doing fMRI research as a part of the University of Miami. I am a part of amazing research groups, such as the McKnight Research group which is a team of neurologists, neuropsychologist, radiologists all at the same investigating treatments for age-related neurodegeneration.  I am also a regular at the Brain Connectivity and Cognition Laboratory, which is one of the research laboratories that I looked up to earlier in my career.

What are your future career goals?

I hope to take fMRI research as far as I can. It has been a rewarding experience and it is such an impressive community. However, students like me have lower chances to move on to direct their own laboratory, so I remain open to prospects in the industry.

What do you like to do for fun?

I love making art. I have film cameras and paint canvases all stashed in my home for the rare moments when there is time to make something or shoot pictures.

Is there any other information that you would like to add?

To an early career researcher that is also an underrepresented minority, I would say: You are not alone. It’s a challenging life path, which is made more challenging if you blame yourself for a lot of the challenges that you encounter in academia.

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