Researcher Spotlight: F32 recipient Dr. Kurt Fraser

Photo of Dr. Kurt Fraser, a F32 award recipient who used the funding opportunity to study motivational and behavioral responses. The F32 funding opportunity supports the research training of promising postdoctorates early in their postdoctoral training period.
Dr. Kurt Fraser is a F32 award recipient who used the funding opportunity to study motivational and behavioral responses. 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. Kurt Fraser received a BRAIN Initiative F32 Individual Postdoctoral Fellowship award to support his research on how motivation shapes our response to cues—the core of many psychiatric illnesses. 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 August 09, 2023

Check out the interview below to learn more about Dr. Fraser’s post-doc research to understand the mechanisms behind motivation. He discusses his unconventional track to academic research, what he hopes to achieve with his research, what challenges he’s faced in his career as part of the LGBTQ+ community, and what advice he’d give to the next generation of neuroscientists.

Would you please briefly introduce yourself?  

My name is Kurt Fraser (he/him/his) and I’m currently a postdoctoral fellow at the University of California (UC) Berkeley in the lab of Dr. Stephan Lammel

. I earned my undergraduate degree at the University of Michigan (Go Blue!) where I worked with Shelly Flagel and discovered my passion for understanding the neurobiological basis of motivation. I was lucky to work with Dr. Patricia Janak

at Johns Hopkins University for my Ph.D. During my Ph.D., I primarily worked on a behavioral phenomenon called occasion setting, which is a process that allows us to flexibly update and alter our behavior depending on the scenario we are in. This is a process akin to how we learn to use our indoor voice versus our outdoor voice or why sometimes commercials make us more likely to pull into a fast food restaurant when we try to keep on a diet. I demonstrated in my doctoral studies that dopamine neurons and dopamine release in the mesolimbic dopamine system are essential for this process. In my postdoctoral work, I’m trying to understand how dopamine and acetylcholine interact in distinct striatal systems to facilitate this special form of context-dependent behavior. This is a fun topic to work on that intersects with a lot of hot topics in systems and behavioral neuroscience, which keeps each day exciting.

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

I actually had no idea what academic research was until my junior year of college. I’m from a really small town in Michigan and am a first-generation college grad so I had little preparation for what to even expect at college. I was interested in medicine and on that standard path of being pre-med. One consistent piece of advice I received was that I needed to have lab research experience to boost my CV. I was drawn to medicine and the brain because my mom has the unfortunate dual diagnosis of multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s disease, and I was frustrated at the complete lack of treatments, let alone a cure, that were available to her. Despite this, I really didn’t enjoy my hospital volunteering and realized even if I were to go into medicine, my ability to drive new treatments would be limited. I was fortunate to make a connection in a neuroscience student club with someone working in Dr. Shelly Flagel’s

lab and the rest is history. Dr. Flagel didn’t work on neurological disorders but was interested in processes that cause some individuals to be more susceptible to psychiatric illnesses like addiction and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). I found something in this work that I really could not stop thinking about and have not looked back since.

My ambitions are really driven by trying to change the system that we operate in and make things better for future generations. I have had amazing mentors and my main passion is mentoring students and seeing their progress on projects. I want to be sure to pass on what I’ve gained and learned to the next generation. While I absolutely love the work and research I do, I want to make sure that the difficulties and burdens that exist currently in our system can be dismantled. I am driven to continue on in this career path to make the academic system more equitable.

What major unanswered questions do you hope to address?

My primary research interest is trying to understand what is a context, sometimes called occasion setters, how the brain recognize a context, and how we exploit contexts to alter behavior. What are the psychological and neurobiological processes that allow us to dynamically alter our behavior depending on “context?” This has been explored in the hippocampal research field by exploring systems that allow us to recognize the precise physical and spatial components of a context, but I’m interested in what neural circuits and systems encode contextual information and work to exploit that information to actually alter behavior.

The common model of using a context in behavioral neuroscience is essentially a rodent model of the rehab process, but this is an overly reduced and specific instance of contextual processing. The dysregulation of context-dependent behavior, either by being excessively flexible such as in substance use disorders or by being unable to properly recognize contexts that are safe as in PTSD, is a core feature of psychiatric illness so I hope that this research program can guide future therapies.

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’ve been quite lucky to have a straight path from undergraduate, direct to graduate, direct to postdoc without major hiccups in the way. One thing that has made this possible is that I’ve been fortunate to have mentors who have known how to guide and support me. However, I’ve struggled with extreme imposter syndrome and anxiety, almost dropping out of my Ph.D. studies a few months in. I am also gay which is one of the most important components of my identity. Societal acceptance has certainly come a long way and I have come up in a generally positive climate, although we are currently experiencing a backsliding that will have devastating consequences for trans people in our country that we cannot be silent about. I’ve personally faced unwelcome comments and difficulties in from being gay, even having faculty members actively avoid me as a result. Being a gay neuroscientist is without a doubt isolating and there are very few role models to look up to that have made it in this harsh academic environment.

The issue of underrepresentation of LGBTQ+-identifying individuals in academic research has long been ignored. Only recently have efforts been made to try to understand the impact of this underrepresentation by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and attempt to rectify this issue. To be honest, it’s been the help of close friends that have helped me work through these issues. It shouldn’t require the level of resilience it does to continue in this career but having the ability to build up a tough skin and a big support network are essential to getting by. I also have learned to find my voice and I’m no longer afraid of speaking up and making issues known.

What would be the next step in your research (or professional development)? 

I’m currently applying for tenure-track faculty positions, so hopefully I will hopefully have some more exciting news soon!

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

Think deeply about how your experience and perspective can push our understanding of the brain forward in a unique way. Also, get lots and lots of input! I am thankful to have many mentors and friends who were available to give lots of great critical feedback.

Are there any specific relevant training and professional development opportunities that you find useful during the fellowship?

One of the best parts of the BRAIN F32 has been access to the numerous workshops and seminars organized by the BRAIN Initiative. The yearly Next Generation of Leaders workshops have been a major highlight of this award. Also, the additional travel funds from the award have allowed me to attend conferences in the beginning of my postdoc and continue building and maintaining my professional network.

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

Spending almost all my time with my recently rescued pup, Levi, who is a cattle dog-husky-German shepherd mix. I’m also a fiend for Real Housewives content (not only the shows but numerous podcasts), enjoy weightlifting, and frequently grab drinks with friends.

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!  

Editor’s note: NIH Leadership recognizes the insufficiencies described in Dr. Fraser’s interview regarding underrepresentation and marginalization of the LGBTQ+ community. NIH is committed to fostering an inclusive atmosphere where all individuals enjoy the same access to a safe and supportive work environment and to ensuring equal opportunity and embracing diversity to facilitate innovative research. Please check out the NIH’s Office of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI)’s website and further details on Pride Month 2023. The NIH BRAIN Initiative is firmly committed to promoting diversity, inclusivity, and accessibility in the research community. For more information, explore the Plan for Enhancing Diverse Perspectives (PEDP) webpage


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