"Any man could,

if he were so inclined,

be the sculptor of his own brain."

Santiago Ramón y Cajal

 
 
 

BIOGRAPHY

I received my Bachelor's degree in Psychology from the liberal arts institution, Carroll University. My interest in neuroscience began with a summer research program sponsored by Amgen at UC San Francisco, and developed during a one-year tenure as a clinical research coordinator at Mass General Hospital in Boston, MA.

I was accepted to UC Irvine's Neurobiology and Behavior graduate program, where I trained for a year before moving to the Center for Neural Science at New York University with my thesis advisor to complete my Ph.D. During my graduate training, I developed a deep appreciation for teaching and mentorship, both in the classroom and the lab.

I have been a post-doc for 2 years (1 year at Duke University and 1 year at Harvard Medical School after a laboratory move), and now am on the job market! My goal is to obtain an Assistant Professor position where I can advance my research in an independent laboratory and continue to develop my pedagogical vision.

Research

My thesis in the Carew lab at NYU focused on the role of growth factor (GF) signaling cascades supporting long-term memory (LTM) formation in the marine mollusk, Aplysia californica. Virtually all GFs are implicated in learning and memory formation, and I became curious as to the functional significance of multiple, simultaneously engaged GFs to support LTM. I thus examined the role of two different GF families simultaneously during LTM formation, a project that was funded by a pre-doctoral fellowship (NIMH) and published in Neuron. My data demonstrated that distinct GF families independently regulate kinase activation in addition to synergistically interacting to support new gene expression and LTM formation. Check out media coverage of this project here.

My graduate work left me with a critical insight: Mother Nature never throws anything away. Molecular processes critical for development (i.e. GF signaling) are re-engaged during adult plasticity, and thus neurodevelopment can critically inform the study of adult behavior.

For my postdoctoral work, I wished to explore this notion further. Although not traditionally considered when using the term “development”, brain regions associated with decision making and reward processing, including the nucleus accumbens (NAc), have delayed maturation relative to other brain regions and exhibit considerable developmental plasticity during adolescence. As such, these regions are particularly vulnerable during this time and can be lastingly altered by stressors common to the human adolescent experience, including drug use. Interestingly, microglia, the immune cells of the brain, are implicated as regulators of this developmental critical period in the NAc. My postdoctoral work in the Bilbo lab at Harvard Medical School, supported by a post-doctoral fellowship (NIDA) demonstrates sex-specific neuro-immune interactions between microglia and dopamine receptors during adolescent development in the NAc. Moreover, these neuro-immune relationships so critical to proper maturation of the NAc neural circuitry, appear to be disrupted by adolescent drug use, providing a plausible mechanism that may confer adolescent vulnerability.

I aim to establish an independent research program focused on the continued characterization of the molecular mechanisms, and in particular neuro-immune communication, regulating adolescent development in the reward circuitry. Moreover, a high priority in my laboratory will be to evaluate how this developmental plasticity is altered by adolescent drug use as well as other experiences, to lastingly modify the neural circuit and adult behavior.

Teaching

I sought out teaching experiences from a very early point in my academic career. As an undergraduate, I tutored chemistry and volunteered to give a lecture on neuron biology in my psychology course. Since then, I have taught one year of Neurobiology and Behavior lab for discipline majors at UC Irvine, and three years of introductory neuroscience (Brain and Behavior) lab for Humanities majors at NYU. I also delivered yearly guest lectures on the molecular mechanisms of learning and memory formation while at NYU. In a research setting, I have mentored a Master’s student (Biology, NYU), an undergraduate diversity in research fellow (Neural Science, NYU), and an undergraduate Honor’s student (Psychology and Neuroscience, Duke). In addition to the mentorship I received, these experiences have shaped my philosophy as an educator and mentor. 

Specifically, I wish to create a supportive environment for young scientists to practice critical thinking and pursue their own interests, and in doing so extend their experience to a level it would not have otherwise reached. 

“…create a supportive environment…”

An inclusive and diverse environment is ideal in all academic settings, and what this means in practice is variable. Inclusivity, to me, means unwavering support. Without support there can be no self-confidence, and without self-confidence there can be no innovation in the classroom, lab, or beyond. My thesis lab is a good example of what a supportive environment looks like. Upon joining, I was assigned to complete experiments for an existing research project while (i) receiving mentorship during the foundation of my technical and theoretical training and (ii) being introduced to the questions the lab was pursuing, and how they were being pursued. This is an ideal framework for gaining self-confidence while developing independent interests, and has inspired the strategies I use to create a comfortable and inclusive environment in the classroom and research settings.

“…practice critical thinking…”

When I taught introductory neuroscience at NYU, I noticed that students were overwhelmed by too much detail in presentations or texts, and would respond by attempting to memorize the material rather than understanding it. Similarly, some of my laboratory mentees could easily list topics that provided the foundation of our research, but struggled to explain how those topics ultimately culminated in our hypotheses. These experiences have demonstrated to me the need for clarity not only in curriculum but also in the scientific process in the lab. My approach to embed critical thinking in the classroom and in research training has developed with the aid of two certificate courses in which I participated at NYU (Teaching and Learning Excellence) that focused on integrating all components of a course with pre-determined learning outcomes. In practice, I (with colleagues) re-imagined NYU’s laboratory manual to (i) emphasize content clarity and (ii) build critical thinking exercises into the experimental procedure to enhance the learning potential of a step-by-step technique. I additionally helped design a new laboratory exercise designed to better marry the lecture with the lab, so students would have complementary learning experiences.

 

Publications

Here are links to my publications. For PDFs or information regarding my on-going projects, please feel free to contact me!

Lacagnina MJ, Kopec AM, Cox SS, Hanamsagar R, Wells C, Slade S, Grace PM, Watkins LR, Levin ED, Bilbo SD. (2017). Opioid Self-Administration is Attenuated by Early-Life Experience and Gene Therapy for Anti-Inflammatory IL-10 in the Nucleus Accumbens of Male Rats. Neuropsychopharmacology.

 

Kopec AM, Rivera PD, Lacagnina MJ, Hanamsagar R, Bilbo SD. (2017). Optimized solubilization of TRIzol-precipitated protein permits Western blotting analysis to maximize data available from brain tissue. Journal of Neuroscience Methods, 280: 64-76.

 

Mirisis AA*, Alexandrescu A*, Carew TJ, Kopec AM. (2016). The contribution of spatial and temporal networks in the induction of long-term memory and its underlying synaptic plasticity. Aims Neuroscience, 3(3): 356-84. 

 

Stough S*, Kopec AM*, Carew TJ. (2015). Synaptic generation of an intracellular retrograde signal requires activation of the tyrosine kinase and mitogen-activated protein kinase signaling cascades in Aplysia. Neurobiology of Learning and Memory, 125: 47-54. *indicates co-first authorship

 

Kopec AM, Philips GT, Carew TJ. (2015). Distinct growth factor families are recruited in unique spatiotemporal domains during long-term memory formation in Aplysia californica. Neuron, 86(5): 1228-39. 

 

Fischbach S*, Kopec AM*, Carew TJ (2014). Activity-dependent inhibitory gating in molecular signaling cascades induces a novel form of intermediate-term synaptic facilitation in Aplysia californica. Learning and Memory, 21(4): 199-204. *indicates co-first authorship

 

 Pu L, Kopec AM, Boyle HD, Carew TJ (2014). A novel cysteine-rich neurotrophic factor in Aplysia facilitates neuronal growth, MAPK activation, and long-term synaptic facilitation in identified sensory neurons. Learning and Memory, 21(4): 215-222.

 

Kopec AM & Carew TJ (2013). Growth factor signaling and memory formation: Temporal and spatial integration of a molecular network. Learning & Memory, 20(10): 531-539.

 

Philips GT, Kopec AM, Carew TJ (2013). Pattern and predictability in memory formation: From molecular mechanisms to clinical relevance. Neurobiology of Learning and Memory, 105: 117-124.

 

Philips GT, Ye X, Kopec AM, Carew TJ (2013). MAPK establishes a molecular context that defines effective training patterns for long-term memory formation. The Journal of Neuroscience, 33(17): 7565-73.

Contact Me

I would love to hear from you! Whether you'd like to chat about my research, teaching philosophy, request a PDF copy of one of my publications, or offer a general comment or question, I welcome your input. A copy of my full CV can be found here. You can reach me at:

ashleymkopec@gmail.com