Biomedical Science student awarded prestigious NSF Graduate Research Fellowship
By Alyssa Yancey, firstname.lastname@example.org, 803-216-3302
Second-year Ph.D. candidate Katy Pilarzyk developed a passion for studying the brain while taking Psychology 101 during her freshman year at the University of Wisconsin – Green Bay.
“I liked that there is so much that isn’t known and that it’s so complicated and complex,” says Pilarzyk. “I knew I liked the brain, but I wasn’t sure if I wanted to go the medical school route or the research route.”
After spending a year as a phlebotomist, Pilarzyk decided the clinical world wasn’t the right fit. In 2016, after never even visiting South Carolina, she accepted a position as a research technician in Michy Kelly’s lab in the University of South Carolina’s School of Medicine in Columbia. The following year she applied to be a Ph.D. candidate in school’s Biomedical Sciences Program.
This spring her decision to pursue a career in research was validated when she was named one of only three University of South Carolina students to be awarded a prestigious National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship.
NSF Graduate Research Fellows benefit from a three-year annual stipend of $34,000 along with a $12,000 cost of education allowance for tuition and fees, and opportunities for international research and professional development. Abigail Herschman and Noemi Glaeser, both students in the university’s College of Engineering and Computing, where the other two UofSC recipients. Six South Carolina alumni also were named fellows.
Pilarzyk will use her funding to continue her work in Kelly’s lab. Kelly, an associate professor in the Department of Pharmacology, Physiology & Neuroscience, studies the inner workings of the brain to better understand the molecular mechanisms underlying social and cognitive deficits. Specifically, her team is investigating phosphodiesterase 11 (PDE11A), an enzyme found in a brain region key to the circuitry of social behaviors. Previously, the lab has found too much or too little PDE11 can result in increased deficits.
Pilarzyk has been involved in studying the effects of social isolation on PDE11. Social isolation is known to negatively impact an individual’s mental and physical health and even increase the risk of suicide, but little is understood about how social isolation affects the brain on a molecular level.
I love what I do because sometimes we have a few pieces of information that don’t seem like a big deal, but then once we put the puzzle together and see the big picture, everything starts to make more sense and actually changes how we see the world around us.
Using animal modeling, the team has discovered subjects who experience the stress of social isolation tend to show decreased PDE11, which in turn affects their social memories and behaviors. The team hopes their findings can eventually help lead to more effective treatments for the social and behavioral deficits often seen in neuropsychiatric diseases, as well as age-related diseases.
“Social isolation is devastating for both physical and mental health, but it also is debilitating for society because people who feel isolated tend to drop out of society and we need everyone to contribute to have a functional society,” Pilarzyk says.
Pilarzyk plans to use her NSF funding to compare the effects of chronic social isolation versus acute social isolation, as well as the differences in how adolescents respond to social isolation compared to adults.
“I love what I do because sometimes we have a few pieces of information that don’t seem like a big deal, but then once we put the puzzle together and see the big picture, everything starts to make more sense and actually changes how we see the world around us," Pilarzyk says.
Students seeking national fellowships can be assisted by the Office of Fellowships & Scholar Programs. For more information about the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship program or other national competitions, contact the Office of Fellowships and Scholar Programs.
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