• Recruiting New Research Assistants: 2021-2022


Natasha O’Brown: I’m originally from Miami, FL and my love of bright colors and good Cuban food will never fade. I received my undergraduate degree in Biology from Davidson College in North Carolina, where I did an honors thesis investigating the role of the pesticide malathion on spinal cord neural patterning using zebrafish embryos. From there, I went on to pursue my graduate degree in Developmental Biology at Stanford University. I studied the molecular basis of the evolution of two distinct adaptive traits: loss of bony armor plates in freshwater stickleback fish and the rapid expansion of the human brain. For my postdoctoral work at Harvard Medical School, I shifted gears to focus on the molecular regulators of blood-brain barrier (BBB) function using zebrafish. This allowed me to characterize the developmental pattern of vertebrate BBB functionalization across many scales, from subcellular compartments to entire tissue levels, and with live imaging, I was able to characterize the dynamic nature of BBB leakage, both developmentally and in genetic mutants. In the O’Brown lab, we will continue to capitalize on the unique advantages of the zebrafish system to uncover novel molecular and cellular regulators of BBB function, with the ultimate goal of improving human therapies of brain diseases, both to open a sealed BBB to allow better drug penetration into the brain and to seal a leaky BBB, as seen in many neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, to prevent further damage to the brain.

Victoria Abraira: I received my undergraduate degree in Biological Sciences from the University of Southern California and my graduate degree in Neuroscience from Harvard University. As a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard Medical School I set out to understand the cellular and synaptic substrates underlying innocuous touch perception by elucidating the functional organization of sensory neurons in mouse hairy skin and uncovering the neural codes of touch perception in the spinal cord dorsal horn.  Now in my own lab, I’m extending these studies with the use of new mouse genetic tools to dissect touch circuits from the skin to the brain, with the long term objective of uncovering an integrative model of touch perception in health and disease. Our tactile world is rich, if not infinite. The flutter of an insect’s wings, a warm breeze, raindrops, and a mother’s gentle caress all impose mechanical forces upon our skin, and yet we encounter no difficulty in telling them apart and react differently to each. How do we recognize and interpret the myriad of tactile stimuli to perceive the richness of the physical world? My lab utilizes the power of mouse molecular genetics to understand our sense of touch, from pain to pleasure and everything in between. 

Santiago Cuesta: I’m from Argentina. I grew up in a small town called Rio Cuarto, located in the heart of the country. Once I finished high school, I moved to a larger city, Rosario, where I studied Biotechnology at the National University of Rosario. After graduating, I started my Ph.D. in Biological Sciences at the same institution. My research focused on the neuroscience of substance use disorders, and I used behavioral and biochemical approaches to uncover a novel pathway associated with cocaine addiction. I then moved to Montreal, Canada, to do a postdoctoral training at MgGill University. During that time, I strengthened my background in addiction, but with a new focus, the developing adolescent brain. Then, I moved to UT Southwestern, Dallas, to pursue a second postdoc aimed at evaluating the influence of the gut microbiota - the bacteria that live in our gut - in the development of substance use disorders. My research characterized a specific gut-to-brain communication mechanism by which gut bacteria alters the vulnerability to develop cocaine addiction in mice. Currently, the goal of my lab at Rutgers is to continue identifying individual members of the microbiota, and the molecular mechanisms they use to impact brain maturation and function in the context of substance use disorders. Using a multidisciplinary approach that combines behavioral neuroscience techniques and microbiological strategies we aim at generating data that can help the development of therapeutic strategies and early intervention programs directed to reduce the detrimental consequences of addiction and substance use disorders, as well as other psychiatric conditions.

Wei Dai: My research is focused on using cutting edge tools from cryo-electron microscopy (cryoEM) and tomography (cryoET) to analyze higher order protein structure and protein-protein interactions in cells and tissues relevant to human health and disease. My decision to focus on molecular/cellular ultrastructure as an independent researcher reflects my experience and training in structural analysis of multi-protein complexes on various length scales. I obtained my PhD at Baylor College of Medicine studying the Bordetella bacteriophage using an integrative approach that combined cryoEM single particle analysis with cryoET. As a postdoctoral fellow with Dr. Wah Chiu at National Center for Macromolecular Imaging, I continued to focus on structural aspect of cellular processes, this time to understand the mechanisms underlying Huntington’s Disease pathogenesis. Since arriving at the Faculty of CBN in the spring of 2016, I have established an interdisciplinary research program aimed at deciphering higher order protein aggregate structures and protein-protein interactions in neurodegenerative diseases. I am also teaching a session in Advanced Cell Biology course. I appreciate the rich environment at Rutgers, to collaborate with my colleagues and to interact with the students.

Brian Daniels: I received BA/BS degrees in behavioral biology and English. I began my research career as an undergraduate studying the behavioral consequences of chronic infection with the neurotropic parasite Toxoplasma gondii. I maintained my interest in infectious diseases of the central nervous system as a PhD student in neuroscience at Washington University in St. Louis, where I studied interactions between the nervous and immune systems during West Nile virus encephalitis. I pursued postdoctoral training in immunology at the University of Washington in Seattle, where I worked to define specialized host defense mechanisms in the brain to neuroinvasive viruses, including Zika virus. The goal of my lab at Rutgers is to understand how the resident cells of the brain and spinal cord coordinate immune responses to both infection and sterile traumatic injury. We are particularly interested in cell types that comprise the blood-brain barrier, the primary physiologic interface between the nervous system and circulating immune cells. Using a combination of mouse models and advanced tissue culture systems, we hope to uncover molecular mechanisms that shape both protective and pathologic neuroinflammation.    

Rafiq Huda: I did my undergraduate work at Carleton College, where I studied Biology and Neuroscience. I continued my training through graduate studies at Northwestern University. Using cellular electrophysiology techniques, I uncovered novel mechanisms for respiratory motor control by brainstem neural circuits. Seeking to bridge the mechanisms operating at cellular and systems levels, I did my postdoctoral work in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at MIT, where I extended my training to systems neuroscience and advanced optical methods for analysis of neural circuits in behaving mice. I uncovered the function of distinct prefrontal cortex circuits in attention and motor planning. In parallel, I dissected the role of striatal circuits in reward-based learning. My long-term research goal is to understand the cellular and neural circuit mechanisms underlying key cognitive functions like attention and behavioral flexibility. Current work in my lab emphasizes the role of molecularly- and anatomically-defined cortical, striatal, and midbrain circuits in attention and flexibility using next-generation optical tools. In addition to resolving the contribution of these circuits to various cognitive functions, our work will identify general principles for information flow and computation in long-range brain circuits. 

Max Tischfield: I am a graduate of the Rutgers College Honors Program and a Henry Rutgers Scholar in the Department of Cell Biology and Neuroscience. I have a long standing interest in human genetics, and also cellular and molecular mechanisms that regulate normal human development and the pathophysiology of neurological, vascular, and craniofacial diseases. As a graduate student in the Department of Neurobiology at Harvard Medical School, I cloned and functionally characterized several human gene mutations, including transcription factors and cytoskeleton proteins, that are critical for the development of neurons and blood vessels. During my post-doctoral studies at Johns Hopkins Medical School and Boston Children's Hospital, I used mouse genetics to investigate the requirement of the Wnt/Beta-Catenin pathway for blood barrier development and maintenance. I also characterized blood vessel malformations in children with craniosynostosis, and discovered that paracrine BMP signaling from the developing skull is critical for venous angiogenesis in the head. Going forward, my lab will continue to use mouse genetics, high resolution imaging, and various molecular biology and stem cell approaches to model human disease. My lab resides in the Child Health Institute of New Jersey, and will provide a multi-disciplinary research program that will include: deciphering how blood and lymphatic vessels develop in the meninges and their impact on brain health; the establishment and maintenance of blood barriers in the brain and retina in normal development and disease; mouse models of neuropsychiatric disease, with a particular focus on Tourette's syndrome. I am excited to return to Rutgers, and I am eager to collaborate and mentor undergraduate, graduate, and post-doctoral fellows.