UTEP Interdisciplinary collaborations lead to major publications, advances in Neuroscience research, education

In the Systems Neuroscience Laboratory at The University of Texas at El Paso, where Arshad Khan, Ph.D., associate professor of biological sciences, directs a team of undergraduate and graduate student researchers, the focus is on mapping individual pathways of the brain – down to a cellular level – to help understand how the human brain works.

A team of UTEP researchers in Khan’s lab partnered with collaborators on and off campus to engage in two individual interdisciplinary research studies, both resulting in major scientific journal publications and new discoveries in the field of neuroscience.

Tracking Learning Outcomes

The first of the two studies was published in The Journal of Undergraduate Neuroscience Education. The research was a collaboration between Khan’s brain mapping research team and Jeffrey Olimpo, Ph.D., assistant professor in biological sciences at UTEP, who specializes in the discipline of science education and directs the Biology Education Research Group.

Olimpo and his team, along with Christina D’Arcy, Ph.D., who is a research assistant professor in Khan’s lab and lead author of the published study, spent three years tracking the learning outcomes of undergraduate students enrolled in Khan’s brain mapping lab class for freshmen and found that these students had a greater sense of identity as scientists, better appreciation of the research process, and were overall excited about science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education. Anais Martinez, Ph.D., who was a graduate student in Khan’s lab when the study began and who was instrumental in working with the students enrolled in the class, is also a co-author of the study.

The study was made possible through a $2.4 million education grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), a Washington, D.C.-based organization that has promoted undergraduate education for more than 25 years. The grant was awarded to develop methods to retain entering freshmen who historically drop out of STEM disciplines by their sophomore year.

At UTEP, the interdisciplinary education grant titled “Program to Educate and Retain Students in STEM Tracks” (PERSIST), resulted in the creation of a three-course freshman research sequence developed by UTEP faculty. The UTEP team awarded the HHMI grant includes faculty members Stephen Aley, Ph.D., principal investigator of the project, and co-investigators Lourdes Echegoyen, Ph.D.; Dino Villagrán, Ph.D.; and Eli Greenbaum, Ph.D.; and Khan.

By synergizing PERSIST funds and funding from UTEP’s BUILD grant from the National Institutes of Health, in which Echegoyen and Aley are also PIs, a larger program was developed that is dedicated to engaging incoming freshmen in research: the FYRIS (Freshman Year Research Intensive Sequence).

“The courses I developed consisted of brain mapping and the newly emerging discipline called connectomics – the science of trying to understand every connection of the brain,” Khan said. “It was the first freshman laboratory of its kind in the country and still remains the only example of brain mapping at the microscopic, cellular level that freshmen take as their entry-level biology lab.”

From the very beginning, organizers were measuring outcomes of students before and after participation, and after two years the team started analyzing the data.

“The three of us – Dr. Khan, Dr. D’Arcy, and myself – connected to merge the curricular aspect of the course with the underlying assessment and evaluation piece, which resulted in a lot of rich discussion,” Olimpo said. “That helped iterate how the course was implemented and how to study outcomes in those spaces.”

UTEP junior and neuroscience major Monica Ponce said the PERSIST/FYRIS lab changed her life and career path and made her fall in love with neuroscience and research.

“I was impressed that, as freshmen, we were considered real researchers,” Ponce shared. “The lab inspired me to keep going in the science field and made me feel I was contributing something to the scientific community. If I hadn’t taken the PERSIST/FYRIS lab, I wouldn’t have changed my major to neuroscience. I love the brain now.”

The results of the study were not surprising to the researchers involved, but what struck them was the quality of neuroscience research produced by the freshmen researchers.

“There is a level of maturity to the approach of their work,” D’Arcy said. “You should not undersell our freshmen because they are research capable and ready to go … We just need to give them the right environment, support them, and they are scientists.”

Canadian Collaboration

The second interdisciplinary research study was published in The Journal of Comparative Neurology, the oldest continuously-published basic neuroscience journal and one of the most highly regarded for mapping the brain.

Khan and his team partnered with Melissa Chee, Ph.D., assistant professor of neuroscience at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, and her team of student researchers for an innovative collaboration that allowed both sides to expand upon their areas of study and expertise.

Whereas Khan’s expertise is largely focused on mapping brain circuits controlling feeding, arousal and other functions, Chee’s laboratory specializes in using genetic technologies to study these same functions. The labs combined their expertise in mapping and genetics to track the locations of a novel population of nerve cells by experimentally tagging them with a fluorescent marker.

“This is an interdisciplinary collaboration in the sense that we are now combining state-of-the-art genetic tools, which are the expertise of Dr. Chee, with brain mapping techniques that are very unique to our lab and only a few other labs in the world,” Khan said. “I have known Melissa for over a decade, and she’s an expert in understanding some of the technical tricks that are needed to be able to start identifying and tagging nerve cells, taking advantage of those genetics.”

The collaboration was formed over a shared area of study between both professors. Khan had a project he and his team were working on in his lab at UTEP, studying neurons in the brain that could potentially manufacture the molecule dopamine, which is a clinically important neurotransmitter that controls numerous brain functions and helps nerve cells communicate.

Meanwhile, in her lab in Canada, Chee found brain hormones made in a region known as the hypothalamus that could regulate dopamine.

“Arshad’s team was working on studies looking at these specific brain cells in the hypothalamus that could possibly make dopamine,” Chee said. “We really don’t know a lot about these cells. We know they are there but nobody has characterized them, so, although we know these cells could make dopamine, that has never been shown. What we set out to do with this project was a very unique point for collaboration.”

The overall goal of the study was to locate and identify these novel individual brain cells in the hypothalamus, determine if they have the machinery to synthesize dopamine, and then use brain mapping methods to create a standardized map of this new dopamine brain cell population that others could reference, giving them more direction and insight in their own research on dopamine. Ultimately, the two teams were able to identify and map a new population of dopamine neurons in the brain – in a region known as the “zona incerta” – that has been implicated in helping to mediate the brain’s responses to feeding, fear and aggression.

Ken Negishi, a doctoral student in bioscience at UTEP, was the co-lead author of the study along with a team of students in Chee’s lab. The two teams of researchers worked closely and communicated regularly, despite the distance.

A couple of Chee’s students had the opportunity to work remotely under Negishi’s direction. At a distance, they were able to immerse themselves in the work being done in brain mapping.

“I thought sharing our techniques and exchanging large datasets would be a big challenge,” Negishi said. “I lucked out in being able to work with well-organized and adaptive students, and those worries were hardly an afterthought. This really cemented trust and gave us a sense that we can accomplish a lot together as a group.”

The two teams were proud that their work was published and grateful for the experience of working together to achieve results that would not have been possible without their partnership. Other scientists also contributed to the study, including co-authors Gabor Wittman, Ph.D., at Tufts Medical Center in Boston, and Harry W. Steinbusch, Ph.D., at Maastricht University in The Netherlands. Together, members of the international team were able to synergize their individual talents and areas of focus.

“By combining different expertise, perspectives and approaches, we were able to go farther in our discovery,” Chee said.

Khan shared Chee’s sentiment and said there would have been no way of conducting such a study without the collaboration.

“Without the whole group, we literally wouldn’t have the expertise and it wouldn’t have been possible,” Khan said.

Since the time that these two studies were published, the coronavirus pandemic has brought new challenges for interdisciplinary work. For now, in-person lab meetings are on pause. The UTEP/Carleton team members are able to continue their work through online interactions and atlas-based digitizing software at home. In the meantime, D’Arcy, Olimpo and Khan are writing a follow-up review of their science education work.

“Fortunately, our interdisciplinary research workflow has allowed us to utilize the technologies we have on hand at UTEP to press on with our work and to continue with little loss in our momentum,” Khan said.

Christina Rodriguez – UTEP Communications