Over the past month, ten undergraduate students in the Max Planck Honors Program (MPHP) have successfully defended their neuroscience-focused theses and earned an honors distinction on their college diplomas. The students (listed below) are part of a joint program between Florida Atlantic University (FAU) and Max Planck Florida Institute (MPFI) that provides neuroscience enrichment opportunities to prepare undergraduates for careers in STEM or further graduate education.
The two-year program includes coursework and independent research in a neuroscience lab, culminating with the completion of an honors thesis. Dr. Joe Schumacher, head of undergraduate programs at MPFI, describes the program’s goals: “The program is designed to connect some of the best students at FAU who might be curious about research or have an interest in neuroscience with the incredible neuroscience research here at MPFI. The students gain research experience working in world-class laboratories, and the scientists gain high-quality, dedicated students to participate in their research.”
One MPHP graduate, Tejas Purimetla, has been pursuing research in the lab of Dr. Vidhya Rangaraju at MPFI for the past three years. Dr. Rangaraju’s lab is investigating energy use and supply in neurons. Neurons need to meet high energy demands. To manage their energy efficiently, neurons locally produce energy where it is most needed. However, how neurons accomplish this had been largely unknown before Tejas, working alongside other scientists in the Rangaraju lab, figured it out. Together, they identified proteins that localize mitochondria near synapses, where they serve as local energy hubs to fuel mechanisms essential for learning and memory formation.
“Tejas was one of the first members to join our new lab in 2020 and has made valuable contributions while juggling his undergraduate coursework. He employed a newly developed method to see how mitochondria interact with the cytoskeleton actin, which has been critical in identifying the key proteins tethering mitochondria near synapses during memory formation,” describes Dr. Rangaraju. “This work is critical to human health as mitochondrial dysfunction is common in many neurodegenerative diseases.” The work that Tejas has been a part of is now in the process of publication. Going into his defense, Tejas was confident and excited after spending the week preparing. “I’ve been told that it’s more of a celebration of my work, so it should be fun!”. In recognition of his research work in the Rangaraju Lab, Tejas received the ‘Outstanding OWL Award’ and the ‘Outstanding Thesis Award’ at the FAU graduation. Tejas is now headed off to Dartmouth to pursue medicine.
Another MPHP student, Emma Menzer, gave a compelling and confident defense of her research that she completed in Dr. Yingxue Wang’s lab at MPFI. Emma’s project was to establish successful workflows for new technologies in the Wang lab. Dr. Wang describes the impact of Emma’s work, “Emma is an excellent student who is highly motivated and independent. During her stay in the lab in the past year, she established a pipeline that combines optical tissue clearing with light sheet microscopy to understand the inputs and output circuits of specific cell types in the brain. These technologies will provide insight into the neural circuits in the brain that enable us to store a record of our daily lives and plan our future actions.”
Any project to set up new technological approaches in a lab has challenges, requiring independence, creativity, and lots of troubleshooting. However, it was this challenge that Emma describes as enjoying most about her experience working in the lab. “One thing that surprised me that I really enjoyed was the independence and flexibility I was given because it pushed me creatively. I started to think in new ways because I was given resources, tools, and independence to pursue different directions. It really changed the way I approach everything because I have a newer, more flexible mindset. If something doesn’t work immediately, I feel confident because I can troubleshoot and optimize to solve the problem.” Emma will continue her research full-time in the Wang Lab at MPFI this upcoming year. Her longer-term plans involve exploring her interest in the emerging field of Neurolaw, which lies at the intersection of neuroscience, technology, and the law. She is interested in exploring how neuroscience can inform the legal system and impact people’s lives.
The ten MPHP students who defended their undergraduate theses all earned their honors distinction. They are Manas Aavula, John Dunn, Cadence Fisher, Rhea Kulkarni, Kate Maier, Emma Lilly Menzer, Tejas Purimetla, Andrew Simonson, Satviki Singh, and Pranav Somesula.