Saturday, November 26, 2022

Neuroscience Ph.D. student Merridee Lefner ’15 to become two-time UTSA alumna

Neuroscience Ph.D. student Merridee Lefner ’15 to become two-time UTSA alumna


DECEMBER 1, 2021 — When Merridee Lefner ’15 arrived at UTSA in 2012 to start her Bachelor of Science in biology, she had no idea how much she’d enjoy neuroscience research—let alone know that nearly 10 years later, she would be receiving her Ph.D. in neuroscience from the same university this month.

Lefner, a Harlingen native, came to UTSA wanting to be a medical doctor. But when she learned about the university’s innovative research laboratories, she knew research was the route to take.

“I think I’m really lucky to have the community of students we have here.”

“When I was in middle school, my grandma was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, so watching the progression of the disease made me really curious about learning about the brain,” Lefner said. “That’s when I decided that I wanted to study neuroscience. I originally thought I would be some sort of medical doctor, but when I saw the research labs, I changed my mind. It got me really interested in research and I decided I wanted to go for the Ph.D.”

Lefner conducted research alongside UTSA faculty member and mentor Matthew Wanat, a neuroscientist specializing in the neurobiology of motivated behavior. When it came time to apply for graduate programs, Lefner decided her time as a Roadrunner wasn’t quite finished.

“By the time I graduated and was applying to Ph.D. programs, I felt I hadn’t learned everything I wanted to learn from the lab I had been volunteering in,” Lefner said. “My mentor was really good and I was doing really cool research. I wanted to stick around and continue what I had started.”

As a researcher in Wanat’s lab, Lefner investigated reward learning—how the brain encodes changes in preference and motivation for rewards.

“I’m curious how the brain learns how to seek cues that are related to rewards as well as how to update reward value,” she said. “For example, if I go to a Starbucks, but it takes me a really long time because they have a super long line, maybe the next time I want coffee I would go to a different location.”

Lefner studied how rats adapt their behavior after their rewards are delayed or altered. She also recorded their dopamine release since the brain’s dopamine system is involved with reward-related behaviors.

During her research, Lefner shed light on the areas of the brain that influence reward preference and motivation, specifically the retrosplenial cortex. This region of the brain is typically associated with navigation, but it was recently found that neurons in this region also respond to rewards.

This year, Lefner published her findings, “Delays to Reward Delivery Enhance the Preference for an Initially Less Desirable Option: Role for the Basolateral Amygdala and Retrosplenial Cortex,” in the Journal of Neuroscience.

“We couldn’t find the brain region that was required from the effect we saw,” Lefner said. “By doing some reading, I found a potential brain region I was interested in for that project and I convinced my principal investigator to let me look at it. To find this region that is involved in the process, it’s been pretty exciting knowing I’ve added this to the field.”

As a doctoral student, Lefner received funding through the UTSA Graduate Presidential Distinguished Research Fellowship. Last year, she also won a $30,000 grant through the Mind Science Foundation’s BrainStorm Neuroscience Pitch Competition.

“The Mind Science Foundation is an organization in San Antonio, and every year they do a pitch competition where people from all over the world can submit grant proposals and pitch their research to an audience,” Lefner said. “They have people vote on what research they want to fund… I did a video for my pitch and won in 2020.”

To share her love of science, Lefner volunteers every year at the John Jay Science and Engineering Academy High School fair.

“I think my main motivator for volunteering is when I was in high school, I wasn’t really aware of research being a potential job opportunity, much less neuroscience research,” she said. “I want to interact with these students because they come up with a lot of really cool projects and it’s amazing to see them excited about science. But I also want to share with them how UTSA has all these amazing research programs and let them know they can continue that.”

Looking back over her time at UTSA, Lefner says she is most proud of the impactful research she’s contributed, and that it is finally reaching an endpoint.

“The research that I do takes a really long time, and so to get to an ending point of publishing or graduating has always been kind of a question mark for me because I didn’t know how long it would take,” she said.

Lefner added that she’s been lucky to have such a close-knit community in her program.

“I think the graduate students here are really special. The way the neuroscience program is set up at UTSA, we’re all able to work really close together and form friendships in a non-competitive environment,” she said. “I think I’m really lucky to have the community of students we have here.”

After graduation, Lefner will seek a postdoctoral fellowship to continue studying the brain regions that are important in reward-based decision making.

Valerie Bustamante Johnson

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