The NIH BRAIN Initiative funding portfolio enables the collaborative and multidisciplinary research necessary to help us understand the brain’s complexities. Dr. Alex Lesicko received a BRAIN Initiative F32 Individual Postdoctoral Fellowship award to support her research on auditory inputs and modular circuits. The F32 program rewards promising postdoctorates early in their careers by enhancing their research training in project areas that advance the goals of the NIH BRAIN Initiative. This article is part of a series that highlights the careers of NIH BRAIN F32 grantees. The next deadline to apply for an F32 award is April 9, 2024.
Check out the interview below to learn more about Dr. Lesicko’s post-doc research to try to understand how the brain decodes sensory stimuli. She discusses how she became interested in her research, what she hopes to achieve next, and the advice she’d give to other potential F32 researchers.
Would you please briefly introduce yourself?
My name is Alex Lesicko (she/her) and I am a postdoc in Dr. Maria Geffen’s lab at the University of Pennsylvania. I received a bachelor’s degree in molecular and cellular biology and a Ph.D. in neuroscience from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. My research project focuses on a key structure in the central auditory (sound) system, the inferior colliculus, which serves as a major integration hub for auditory and multisensory information in the human brain. The goal of my project was to determine the functional roles of auditory and somatosensory (sensation)inputs to the inferior colliculus.
What led you to research? What continues to drive your ambitions as a scientist?
I was initially considering a career in music therapy as an undergraduate but realized that I was more interested in the mechanisms underlying why these kinds of therapeutic interventions were effective rather than working directly with patients. That led me to coursework in neuroscience and undergraduate research experience in an auditory neuroscience lab. I loved the projects I was working on in the lab and felt like research was a great career fit, so I decided to pursue a Ph.D. and have stayed in the auditory field ever since.
What major unanswered questions do you hope to address?
Moving forward, I’m interested in studying how the brain decodes sensory stimuli under a variety of different contexts. This adaptive processing is fascinating – the same acoustic waveform can take on distinct meanings depending on the context in which it is encountered, and we are constantly decoding stimuli under very noisy or degraded conditions. I’m interested in uncovering the circuit and physiological mechanisms that underlie this phenomenon.
What are some of the challenges you have encountered in your research and/or career? How have you or how are you working to overcome them?
A large portion of my postdoc work was done during the pandemic, which was an unexpected challenge. In addition to all the other concerns and personal losses that arose during the pandemic, I think myself and many other scientists felt very isolated from the broader scientific community and faced setbacks in our research due to restricted lab access, product delays, and general uncertainty about how the situation would progress.
What would be the next step in your research (or professional development)?
I’ll be finishing up my postdoctoral research and applying for faculty positions next.
What would be your advice to others who may want to apply to the BRAIN F32 program?
Apply early! I submitted my application two months into my postdoc, as this funding mechanism specifically targets early-stage postdocs. Also, don’t be afraid to reach out to the program officers. I spoke with my program officer at the Society for Neuroscience (SfN) Annual Meeting and afterwards via email to determine whether my proposal was a good fit for the funding opportunity; and it was very helpful.
Are there any specific relevant training and professional development opportunities that you find useful during the fellowship?
The BRAIN Initiative-led workshops, such as the Next Generation of NIH BRAIN Initiative Leaders, were very useful and helped me feel more confident about navigating upcoming career stages.
Fill in the blank: When I’m not working on a research project, I am…
Playing music! I sing and play guitar in a folk trio and am also involved with some larger group ensembles. Outside of that, I enjoy yoga, dancing, reading, and cooking.
Stay tuned for more highlights on BRAIN Initiative award recipients on the BRAIN Blog. If you are a BRAIN Initiative F32 fellow and would like to be featured on our blog, let us know by sending an email to BRAINfeedback@nih.gov!