PhD Candidate Wins NIH Neuroscience Award to Support Research

Noele Certain, a fifth-year PhD candidate in the Molecular and Cellular Pharmacology PhD Program at Stony Brook University, has been awarded the NIH Blueprint Diversity Specialized Predoctoral to Postdoctoral Advancement in Neuroscience (D-SPAN) Award from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The NIH D-SPAN Award will support up to six years of funding during two critical stages of her career, including completion of her doctoral dissertation and transition into a research-intensive postdoctoral position. Overall, the award will help to facilitate her long-term career goal of becoming an independent neuroscience researcher.

Noele Certain will receive to help facilitate her long-term career goal of becoming an independent neuroscience researcher.
Noele Certain will receive funding to help facilitate her long-term career goal of becoming an independent researcher.

Certain earned her MS in Biochemistry and Cell Biology at Stony Brook University. The decision to pursue a graduate degree was a very important next step in her career because it allowed her to strengthen her passion for science and develop the necessary skills in scientific communication, research and leadership. Another critical step was Certain’s acceptance into the Molecular and Cellular Pharmacology PhD Program. “I am so grateful for the incredible amount of support that my program provides. My training in the Scholars in Biomedical Sciences program has also provided me with a unique experience that has supported my development as a scientist and broadened my experience in translational research. These opportunities have taught me to become very independent and take on new leadership and mentoring roles to support other graduate students,” she said.

Certain acknowledges that it is not just her own accomplishments that have allowed her to win this award. “Since my undergraduate years at St. Joseph’s College, I have continued to build a community of mentors and peers that have supported me every step of my career path. My success is also a reflection of my mentorship by faculty and the immense support from colleagues, including my past advisors at St. Joseph’s College, Frank Antonawich and Moira Royston; my current advisor at Stony Brook University, Lonnie P. Wollmuth; my co-advisor in the lab, Helen Hsieh; my program director, Miguel Garcia-Diaz; and my current thesis committee members, Styliani-Anna E. Tsirka, Joshua Plotkin and Louis Manganas, to name a few. My progress as a student and being a recipient of this award demonstrate that it takes the investment of a village to cultivate an environment for student success, especially for me as a multiracial woman of color in science.”

“Obtaining a D-SPAN award is a tremendous achievement, said Professor Garcia-Diaz, also associate dean in the Graduate School. “It indicates the utmost confidence of the NIH in Noele’s promise as a future leader in her field and the mentorship that she is receiving at Stony Brook University. The fact that Noele is an outstanding researcher and an exceptional and generous leader is obvious to those of us who are lucky to interact with her regularly, but this award is also a testament to her talent crafting an exceptionally written grant application that was able to convey her scientific ideas and potential to the reviewers. I am very enthusiastic about the bright scientific future that lies ahead of her.”

“It’s been a pleasure to serve on Noele’s thesis committee and watch her research progress,” said Professor Plotkin. “I’m thrilled that she received this well-deserved award, and even happier to know that such a promising young neuroscientist and leader will receive the support she needs to succeed at the next level.”

Certain became interested in pursuing neuroscience when she first met Professor Wollmuth, from Stony Brook’s Department of Neurobiology and Behavior, during a graduate-level class. “From that point on, I became fascinated by the importance of these tiny proteins known as AMPA receptors that orchestrate the process of learning and memory in the human brain. My current research efforts are focused on understanding the fundamentals of brain function and advancing our knowledge of neurotherapeutic targets,” she said.

For her dissertation work, Certain is investigating the regulation of AMPA receptors and what is necessary to support their function. “We can also use this information to understand dysfunction of the AMPA receptor, which is implicated in numerous brain disorders including epilepsy, Alzheimer’s and drug addiction,” she explained. “My overall goal is to pursue a career as an independent neuroscientist and to provide access and inspiration to all students, especially underrepresented students who seek a path in science.”

Certain is involved with a number of organizations and programs, including the National Science Foundation Alliance for Graduate Education and the Professoriate (AGEP), Graduate Women in Science and Engineering (GWISE), the Graduate Student Organization (GSO), the Center for Inclusive Education (CIE), and numerous local community outreach groups. She is also an associate member in the Society for Neuroscience Scholars Program and a Dr. W. Burghardt Turner Dissertation Fellow. Through these various opportunities, she has provided support to peers and outreach to the community.

After graduation, Certain will pursue a postdoctoral position in neuroscience that will build upon her pre-doctoral training, where she can develop new technical skills and gain more experience in mentoring and teaching to support her career in academia. “Ultimately my goal as an early career scientist is to mentor the next generation of scientists and improve the inclusivity of STEM,” she said. “I have a privilege of being in this position, and it is my responsibility to improve my community by making science accessible to all.”

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