This month we are proud to feature M.U.S.E. mentor Annabelle Bonilla-Flores, an aspiring neuroscientist who has already done exceptional work in her field. Recently, she was an NIH PREP student at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and was accepted into the UMass Amherst Neuroscience PhD Program. She was also recently awarded the very prestigious NSF Graduate Research Fellowship, funding 3 years of he PhD program. Read about her journey through STEM and be sure to contact her if you are interested in mentorship!
Q: Hey Annabelle! Start by tellinng us a little about yourself! A: Hi everyone! My name is Annabelle Flores Bonilla. I was born and raised in the beautiful island of Puerto Rico. I am Hispanic and bilingual, learning both Spanish and English from a very young age. I graduated as Magna Cum Laude of the bachelor’s degree in science (B.S.) in Biology from the Pontifical Catholic University of Puerto Rico in 2019 and I am currently in the National Institutes of Health Postbaccalaureate Research Education Program (NIH-PREP) at the University of Massachusetts Amherst (UMass). I am very interested in the field of Neuroscience, specifically in the study of addiction, stress, and reward.
Q: What are you currently working on in your [STEM] field? What is your work or research about?
A: In the field of Neuroscience, I am currently studying Alcohol Use Disorder or Alcoholism, specifically alcohol binge drinking. In the Richardson laboratory, I use rodent animal models to understand how this alcohol drinking pattern of behavior develops and affects the brain. I am interested in learning how males and females differ in their patterns of binge drinking behavior and how these behavioral differences relate to structural differences in their brain. When placed in special operant boxes, rats learn to lever press for voluntary alcohol drinking. This voluntary access to alcohol is then limited to a very short time to mimic binge drinking that is recurrently seen in teens and young adults.
Q: Did you always want to work in STEM/your field? How did you become interested in your field?
A: Yes! I had an innate curiosity to understand what is going on inside the brain. I did not learn that it was possible to have a career studying the brain until junior year of high school. I thought I had to study medicine and have a specialty in either neurology or psychiatry. However, once I learned that neuroscientists with PhDs study the biology of the brain in attempts to understand psychiatric disorders, I felt that this is it! From then on, I tried to be as involved as possible in my classes. I searched for hands-on experiences in the laboratory by participating in several summer internship programs during my undergraduate career, including at the Princeton Neuroscience Institute, the University of Michigan, and the Johns Hopkins University. I also worked as a volunteer leading journal clubs in my university until I got the opportunity to work as a Research Assistant at the Ponce Health Sciences University studying sex differences in cocaine associative learning, development of depressive-like behavior in high fat diet food consumption, and glial cell interactions in the animal model of endometriosis. Thanks to these valuable experiences I got accepted as a postbaccalaureate at UMass studying the glial cell interactions in an alcohol binge drinking rodent model. I am currently pursuing to get into a PhD program in Neuroscience to study the neurobiology of stress and reward as it relates to addiction of substance abuse and other disorders. (*Update, she did amazing at all her interviews and accepted an offer to complete her PhD at UMass Amherst!)
Q: What hobbies do you have outside of your [STEM] field?
A: I love to play the violin! I learned to read music in elementary school, and I have been playing the violin for over 10 years. I also love being active, I love biking, dancing, hiking, roller blading, ice skating, playing volleyball, going to the gym. I also love cooking and recently got interested in baking. I also love going to the movies, watch anime, and to cosplay my favorite characters.
Q: What do you enjoy most about your job/field/graduate program? A: I love that there is still so much unknown about how the brain works, and by learning we can develop strategies to help people in need. I absolutely love learning new techniques and developing new ideas and questions about addiction that scientists have not asked before.
Q: What does a “typical day” look like for you?
A: A typical day involves arriving early in the morning to the animal facilities, then handling and weighing the rats. Then, I would put the rats in the special operant box and run the program. I put the rats back in their home cages as soon as the program finishes and extract the data we need. After that, I would copy the data into the excel sheet, run statistical analysis, and make graphs. After lunch, I would typically write, describing the graphs or the procedure, and any outcome of the day. I keep everything in order and organized for easy understanding to anyone in the laboratory that wants to learn more about the project. Once a week I have a meeting with the Principal Investigator, Dr. Richardson, to discuss the data and try to develop an understanding based on our interpretation of the results.
Q: What are some of the greatest challenges you experienced as a graduate student and how did you navigate or work through them?
A: The greatest challenge as an undergrad that I had to overcome was to start a new project and gather interesting data within three months to present at a conference after hurricane María devastated the laboratory I was working in at the time. I learned to persevere despite the incredible loss in laboratory materials and animals, and to continue to develop as a scientist.
Q: What advice would you give to someone who wants to be a scientist, go into STEM or pursue graduate school?
A: My advice for someone interested in STEM and wants to be a scientist is to get involved and be open to new experiences. By watching scientists in their routine, learning the craft head-on, and being open to new experiences, your interests and worldview will be enriched with new possibilities you may never have thought of doing before. Embrace failure because understanding what was not expected may lead into new insights never known before. Find what frustrates you and pursue it.
Q: Why are representation and diversity important in higher education?
A: Representation and diversity in higher education is very important because you will become a role model for future generations that may share similar experiences and backgrounds. Also, the unique perspective that as a minority you are bringing to the table is invaluable and so important to enrich the understanding that science has about the world.
Q: Any parting thoughts for the readers? A: Thank you so much for taking the time in reading my experiences. The world is better when diverse people come together to achieve the same goal and understand that the differences you possess is what makes your insight very valuable. Be confident about your background and upbringing because it is the fabric that makes you unique.