UCSB’s Grad Slam Champion Discusses Brain Communication

Image Courtesy of Nicole Leung

Samantha Stopol

After making it through three cuts and competing with 75 other contestants, Nicole Leung clasped her hand over her mouth as she was announced the champion of the University of California, Santa Barbara 2016 Grad Slam on Friday, April 16. A biomolecular science and engineering graduate student, Nicole accepted her trophy and a $5000 research award for having the best three-minute presentation, titled “Lighting the Path from the Eye to the Brain.”

Nicole has been working on the project at the Craig Montell Lab, which specializes in sensory biology, for the past year and a half. Her test subjects, fruit flies, have more in common with humans than meets the eye — or rather, what they have in common is the eye. Looking at the fly eye allows her to study how light affects human internal clocks.

Light enters a human eye through two pathways: rods/cones and retinal ganglion cells. The second system affects the internal clock and is also found in a similar form in fruit flies.

“The drive for my research is to look for new and important proteins in the fly visual system,” Leung said in an interview with The Bottom Line. “The path of light from the eye to the brain for the flies is very similar to the path for how humans reset the internal clock, which controls sleep/wake cycles and other daily patterns.”

Her study began with screening over 200 proteins in the fly visual system, a large undertaking in which she discovered a few new critical proteins. “Taylor Anthony, a senior [undergraduate], has helped me tremendously in the screening effort,” she said.

Leung now faces the major challenge of uncovering what exactly the proteins do and their role in the light pathway. She uses various methods, including using a microscope to study their eye structure, and biochemical techniques to look at the concentration or localization of proteins she is interested in. She has also tested how proteins react to flashes of light.

“We can measure the electrical activity generated by the eye when responding to light,” Leung said. “This is analogous to an electrocardiogram done on humans, which measures the electrical activity of the heart to detect abnormal heart rhythms.”

She found that mutated flies without the protein had eyes that could not communicate with the brain. This proved to her that the protein was important, and could even “one day lead to important medical knowledge and treatments.”

Nicole is passionate about scientific research and enjoys working at the Craig Montell Lab, describing Dr. Montell as supportive and personable. When she is not studying the internal clocks of flies, she takes dance classes in her spare time, which helped her become comfortable in front of the large audience at the Grad Slam competition. “But being comfortable is very different from nerves. I was so nervous before each round of the competition,” she said.

The competition required her to break down her research to communicate it to a general audience. “My first draft of my talk was way too complex and it took many hours of work to simplify the language, but still have enough information to make it intellectually stimulating for the audience,” she said.

Leung was excited to head to the LinkedIn headquarters in San Francisco as UCSB’s finalist for the inter-UC contest on Friday, April 23. “I am looking forward to meeting the other contestants and hearing their winning talks,” she said.