PhD student awarded prestigious opportunity to study in USA

Neuroscientist Chantelle Fourie has a rare opportunity to spend three months near Boston, Massachusetts, researching her dream project.

Chantelle, a PhD student at the University of Auckland’s Centre for Brain Research, is one of only 12 young neuroscientists from around the world to be awarded a coveted Grass Fellowship in neuroscience research.

Her specialist area, and the subject of her almost completed PhD, is the brain’s hippocampus, involved in learning and memory. Chantelle has studied with Dr Johanna Montgomery who runs the synaptic function research group. At the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, she will focus on using optogenetics to map inhibitory circuitry and probe its function in the hippocampus.

“It’s a wonderful opportunity to meet some of the world’s eminent neuroscientists and learn from them, and to make connections with other scientists there for later collaborations,” she says. “This research has not been done in Auckland, but I’ll be able to return with the knowledge and experience to set up a similar facility here.”

Optogenetics is the study of using light to to control the genetic transcription, and therefore the activity, of individual neurons in living tissue. The technique is exciting much interest because it can be used in freely-moving animals in real-time, and so scientists can precisely alter the activity of specific brain areas without directly affecting a subject’s behavior.

Chantelle will take up the fellowship in May and spend the northern summer at Woods Hole, returning to New Zealand in September.

“It’s a dream come true and very exciting to be able to work on this project,” she says. “Although it was hard to come up with a project that can be set up and completed in just 14 weeks.”

Chantelle is due to hand in her doctoral research thesis in May, before she leaves to take up the Fellowship, and says it’s great motivation for finishing on time. Many of the post-doctoral students who do summer research at Woods Hole are able to get results and publish in that short time, partly due to the level of support offered by the scientific community there.

The Grass Fellowship includes all expenses involved with the visit and the research laboratory and equipment, paid for by the Grass Foundation which is a non-profit private foundation set up to support research and education in neuroscience. The Fellowship is intended to help neuroscientists during the early stages of their career to conduct independent research within the intellectual and social group at the MBL community.

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