From the time she was in elementary school, Gianna Perez ’19 CLAS knew that she wanted to be a scientist. An enthusiastic participant in after school science programs, she went on to start a science club at her middle school.
In high school, “I really fell in love with AP Psychology, but didn’t want to give up hard science,” she recalls. “So, I started looking for colleges that had neuroscience programs.”
Gianna was intent on finding a university that offered both the program she wanted and the opportunity to get involved in significant research from the get-go. Villanova’s Cognitive and Behavioral Neuroscience major, its teacher-scholar model—which advances two-way scholarship between faculty and students—and the Presidential Scholarship she received made the University her top choice.
A first-generation college student, Gianna lost no time in finding a spot in a research lab. She participated in the Villanova Match Research Program for First-Year Students, which provides opportunities for motivated Villanova freshmen to pursue undergraduate research in the spring semester. Gianna landed a 10 hour per week position with a $1,000 stipend to work in the comparative cognition laboratory of Michael Brown, PhD, professor of Psychological and Brain Sciences.
“Dr. Brown introduced me to research, how it works and what it’s like to work on a research team,” she says. “It was a great experience.”
Gianna’s research interests are mental health, schizophrenia and depression. In her sophomore year, she found the perfect match for those interests in the lab of Benjamin Sachs, assistant professor of Psychological and Brain Sciences, and sent him an email.
“The fact that I could just email a professor, show up in his office, learn about and like his project and end up in his lab—that just does not happen everywhere,” Gianna says. “The professors here are so approachable.”
Gianna is currently researching the effects of alcohol on gene expression pathways and hopes to shed light on the biological aspects of anxiety and depression when alcohol is added to the mix. “Dr. Sachs found a spot for me in his lab and has been an amazing mentor,” she says.
In summer 2017, Gianna is working as an intern at the Princeton Neuroscience Institute. She will be studying sleep and memory this summer alongside post-doctoral, graduate and fellow undergraduate students in the Computation Memory Lab of Princeton University Psychology professor Kenneth Norman, PhD. “It will help me expand as a researcher, a thinker and a neuroscientist,” she says of the experience.
She looks forward to her return to Villanova in the fall.
“We spend so much time in science looking outside of ourselves. We don’t spend enough time looking in,” Gianna says. “I saw that at Villanova there were great research opportunities, and that I could make an impact.”