CPP alumna sets her mind on neuroscience research at Harvard

By Isabella Cano, April 27, 2021

One of 77 students in the entire California State University system selected for the Sally Casanova Pre-Doctoral Scholar program this year, Cal Poly Pomona alumna Genesis Flores (’20, psychology) earned the opportunity to conduct research at Harvard University during the upcoming summer.

Though the program will provide Flores with $11,000 in food and research stipends, it was up to Flores herself to choose a doctoral-granting institution and contact the expert she had an interest in working with there.

Ultimately, she chose to work with Charles Nelson, professor of pediatrics at Harvard University. The eight-week experience will consist of virtual meetings and in-person lab elements on the Harvard campus.

Courtesy of Flores

“I reached out to him because he’s someone whose research I really enjoy, and I coordinated with him and ended up getting the opportunity. I was just shocked that he agreed to do research with me,” said Flores.

Aiming to specialize in the developmental neuroscience discipline of psychology, Flores will be engaging in two different projects during the program. The first, the “Bangladesh Early Adversity and Neuroimaging Project” studies how exposure to poverty, malnutrition and similar adversities affect the cognitive outcomes of a cohort of children in Bangladesh.

The second, titled “The Healthy Baby Study,” is a United States-based study which examines how infants respond to a range of life experiences and early life stress.

Eager to practice the craft, Flores will employ multiple neuroimaging methods to measure the brain function of subjects.

“One of the really cool things is that we will be using neurophysiology and neuroimaging to study brain development in young children. I’ll actually be doing those sessions with EEG, MRI, eye tracking and all of that, so I’m pretty excited to learn those techniques even more,” said Flores.

Flores added that interacting with participants is something she is especially looking forward to.

Through her volunteering with kids with developmental disabilities at AbilityFirst in Claremont, California, as well as working at the CPP Children’s Center, Flores knew she wanted to focus on developmental psychology early on. However, joining the McNair Scholars Program during her second year at CPP played a large role in her pursuit of developmental neuroscience in particular.

Utilizing EEG assessments to identify brain biomarkers for a project made possible by the program, Flores immediately took a liking to the method.

“I was so fascinated by it and that got me interested in neuroscience methodology, so I linked that with the population I was working with,” said Flores. “The McNair Scholars Program was really helpful and provided a great opportunity for me to get involved in research and learn all these new skills by developing my own project. I think that kind of put me in a good position to obtain the summer research experience at Harvard.”

Since graduating, Flores continues to work with her McNair program mentor, psychology Assistant Professor Kevin Autry. As his research assistant for a cognition study on processing misinformation, she acknowledged his guidance as a crucial contributor to her academic journey.

“He lets me know about all these research opportunities and encourages me to apply to different things,” said Flores. “He was always helping me and the other members of his lab with professional development activities and making sure we’re working on that as well as the research.”

Currently, Flores is in the process of publishing her collaborative study with Autry and interns at a developmental neuroimaging research facility in Cedar-Sinai hospital. This work location is situated close to her biggest fans: her family.

“My family lives in LA so when I have the time, I go visit them,” said Flores. “I would definitely say they are one of my greatest support systems. They’re always so proud of everything that I’m doing and they’re always encouraging me to be as involved as possible.”

Flores plans to apply to doctoral programs in clinical psychology at the University of Minnesota, the University of Southern California and others.

“In the future I want to do research, have my own lab and be able to mentor students but with a clinical psychology degree you can also get licensed, so I would like to do that and work as a clinician with children,” she said. “Ideally I would want to work at an academic medical center where I can do both.”

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