Researcher spotlight: F32 recipient Dr. Drew Davidson

Black and white headshot photo of Dr. Drew Davidson, an F32 award recipient, who used the funding opportunity to investigate context-dependent behaviors in animals.

Dr. Drew Davidson is an F32 award recipient who used the funding opportunity to investigate context-dependent behaviors in animals. The F32 funding opportunity supports the research training of promising postdoctorates early in their postdoctoral training period.

The NIH BRAIN Initiative funding portfolio enables the collaborative and multidisciplinary research necessary to help us understand the brain’s complexities. Dr. Drew Davidson received a BRAIN Initiative F32 Individual Postdoctoral Fellowship award to support his research on associative learning. 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 Initiative F32 grantees. The next deadline to apply for an F32 award is April 09, 2024

Check out the interview below to learn more about Dr. Davidson’s post-doc research. He discusses how he became interested in research, what he hopes to achieve next, and the advice he’d give to other potential F32 researchers.

Would you please briefly introduce yourself, your research interests, and your academic background?

My name is Drew Davidson (he/him), and I am a postdoctoral researcher in Dr. Toshi Hige’s lab in the Department of Biology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC). The lab’s broad interest is in the synapse- and circuit-level processes that drive context-dependent behavior, specifically those that are modified following newly learned information. We use the fruit fly as a model for studying these processes because it displays surprisingly sophisticated behavior and has a relatively simple brain that can form strong associative memories related to smell.

My primary project uses in vivo imaging and optogenetics to study changes in the output of odor-encoding cells following associative learning, which relies on dopamine. We recently reported an unexpected combination of positive and negative changes in calcium activity associated with this dopamine-induced synaptic plasticity.

Before coming to UNC, I earned my BS in biology from Lyon College, a small liberal arts college in my hometown of Batesville, AR. My first research experience was in the lab of Dr. Tim Lindblom, where I used nematodes to study gene flow through a population. Then I earned my PhD in cell and molecular biology at Tulane University in New Orleans, LA. I was trained in the lab of Dr. Ricardo Mostany, where I used in vivo imaging to study the impact of aging on subcellular structural plasticity in the primary motor cortex of mice.

What led you to research? What continues to drive your ambitions as a scientist?

My interest in neuroscience was sparked during my senior year of high school when I took a general psychology class at my hometown community college—the University of Arkansas Community College at Batesville. This interest, combined with a growing fascination with the inner workings of the cell—thanks to my undergraduate cell biology class—set me on the path towards my graduate work in cellular neuroscience and my current research interests in the neurophysiology of learning.

The nature of the work was attractive to me—the excitement of watching incoming data take shape, the often unpredictable directions that new results could lead to, and the thought-provoking conversations with mentors and lab mates all make for a satisfying work life. And I want to acknowledge that this is only possible when the leader of the lab fosters a supportive environment. From undergraduate to graduate to postdoctoral training, I was lucky to have such a research advisor at every step.

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? 

I moved to a new model system at each stage of my training—from nematodes to mice to fruit flies. The move from mice to fruit flies was particularly challenging because of the shift from vertebrate nervous system to invertebrate and because I was not well-acquainted with the history or trajectory of the fly learning and memory field. The support of my postdoc advisor was critical since he made the same transition during his training, and the discussion in our journal club-style lab meetings helped to efficiently broaden my knowledge of the field.

What is the next step in your career?

This summer I will start a teaching faculty position at the University of Arkansas Community College at Batesville, where my neuroscience interests first began! I consistently maintained some level of teaching and outreach roles throughout my graduate and postdoctoral training, including teaching undergraduate and graduate level classes and K-12 outreach, and those experiences were always engaging and energizing. My research training taught me to think slowly, carefully, and critically, and I’m excited to bring this research-tuned perspective to my future students. Especially at a community college, where the focus on reducing academic barriers dovetails with the important mission of broadening access to STEM careers.

What would be your advice to others who may want to apply to the BRAIN F32 program?

The size of the application can be intimidating, and it requires coordination between many people, so identify your target submission date as early as possible and sketch out a timeline for preparing the application. Carve out significant blocks of time from your schedule to create a complete draft to optimize over the weeks and months. And, even if your primary sponsor is an experienced mentor, I think it is worthwhile to identify a co-sponsor and an advisory committee whose strengths complement one another. It was extremely valuable to me to be able to draw technical advice, feedback on writing and presentations, and other support from a range of people familiar with my work.

Fill in the blank: When I’m not working on a research project, I am…

Losing races against my three-year-old son, Jack, whose new shoes have made him incredibly fast. If not that, I’m probably eating sweets and watching basketball with my wife, Kambri.

Stay tuned for more highlights on BRAIN Initiative award recipients in some exciting, upcoming series 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!

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