Researcher spotlight: F32 recipient Dr. Nicole Ann Aponte Santiago

Black and white headshot photo of Dr. Nicole Ann Aponte Santiago

Dr. Nicole Ann Aponte Santiago is a current F32 award recipient who used the funding opportunity to investigate in vivo brain development. 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. Nicole Ann Aponte Santiago received a BRAIN Initiative F32 Individual Postdoctoral Fellowship award to support her research on early neuronal activity in the embryonic brain and calcium signaling. 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 an F32 researcher spotlight 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. Aponte Santiago’s post-doc research to understand how and when neurons activate during brain development. She discusses one of the first discoveries she made, the challenges she’s struggled with, what her next steps are in research, and what helped her most along her journey to becoming a postdoc. 

Would you please briefly introduce yourself?  

My name is Nicole Ann Aponte Santiago, and I use she/her pronouns. I am currently a BRAIN F32 fellow in Dr. Dan Wagner’s lab at University of California, San Francisco (UCSF). My current research project focuses on creating a map of calcium positive cells in the developing zebrafish embryo, a great vertebrate model. I am discovering the gene program changes after embryonic cells receive a calcium signal, emphasizing the embryonic brain. Before joining Dr. Wagner’s group, I earned my Ph.D. in Biology at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and B.S. degree in Cellular Molecular Biology at University of Puerto Rico – Río Piedras (UPR-RP).

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

As an undergraduate, I looked for an opportunity to work in a research lab and joined the Research Initiative for Scientific Enhancement (RISE) and Minority Access to Research Careers (MARC) programs at the University of Puerto Rico, Río Piedras campus. Through these programs, I met other students interested in a research career and learned about different biological research areas and undergraduate summer programs. I took the opportunity to explore different areas of research during my summers. After that experience, I decided to continue a career in scientific research and applied to graduate programs.

I remember the first time I discovered something new in biology. I was in a dark room taking videos of a developing zebrafish brain, tracking the direction of the cerebrospinal fluid flow in both wild type and a hydrocephalic model fish. We saw that the direction of the cerebrospinal fluid flow was different for the hydrocephalic model compared to controls. I realized we were the first people in the world to know this new information. Being a part of discovering new knowledge is a great feeling.

What major unanswered questions do you hope to address?

I want to know how the nervous system turns on, which are the neurons that start firing first, and what gene programs they express as a result. I hope this will give us insight into how our brain develops in an activity-dependent manner.

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? 

While I was working on my Ph.D., I became allergic to fruit flies, the model organism used in my research. To overcome this challenge, I worked with the university for a solution to control the allergy, like wearing an NK95 mask while working with flies. In addition, I reached out to the scientific community to learn about other scientists with allergies working on research.

Finishing my Ph.D. and starting a postdoc during a global pandemic has been challenging. I have learned to find the best rhythm when working alone vs. with others. I think this is a challenge that we all have faced.

A significant challenge I work through is impostor syndrome. For example, it took me a few days to even look at the questions from this interview because I was second-guessing the value of sharing my story. I work through impostor syndrome by acknowledging it and surrounding myself with supportive colleagues and friends. Talking to other scientists, I have learned that impostor syndrome is common, and many great scientists experience it. When I see other scientists that I admire experience impostor syndrome, I see it as a sign of humbleness instead of a weakness, so I’ve been working on seeing that for myself too.

Working while going through multiple changes in my personal life has been challenging. During my Ph.D., hurricanes Irma and María hit Puerto Rico, keeping me from being able to communicate with family and friends for long periods of time. I worked with a therapist to manage my post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after the hurricane. Going through a divorce was also a significant life change. I use tools that help me be present. I make sure to exercise, meditate, journal, drink enough water, and prioritize rest. Ensuring I am taking care of myself first helps me be a better scientist and mentor.

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

I would like to continue deciphering the role of calcium signaling in the developing brain of the embryonic zebrafish as I start my independent research program. During my postdoctoral work, I will combine molecular and computational tools to obtain a map of calcium positive cells in the developing vertebrate embryo and their gene programs associated with calcium signaling.

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

My advice is to go for it. Talk to the program officer about the F32 and what your vision is. Talk to other scientists about your research and obtain feedback on your proposal. It takes time, but it is worth presenting your ideas and proposal to other experts in the field. Having a plan for how I wanted to develop my project helped me better focus my efforts on my goals.

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

The BRAIN F32 program offers training, workshops, and conferences where I get the opportunity to network, meet other like-minded scientists and help me develop new skills. These opportunities are invaluable as I continue to develop my independent research program.

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

Salsa dancing.


Stay tuned for more highlights on BRAIN Initiative award recipients in our exciting, upcoming series on The  BRAIN Blog. If you are a BRAIN Initiative F32 fellow and would like to be featured on our blog, email us at!

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