Las Vegas, N.M. – Rebecca Sena aims to delve into the mysteries of the brain and neuropharmacology during her doctoral studies in biomedical sciences at the University of New Mexico.
“I have always had a fascination with the brain,” Sena said. “At Highlands, I became intrigued with the fundamental neurobiology of mental health disorders. My long-term goal is to perform research in neuropharmacology and gain insight into drugs that will treat psychiatric disorders.”
Sena graduated from Highlands in May with a bachelor’s degree in biology and a minor in chemistry. She begins her Ph.D. studies at UNM in August, planning to focus upon neuroscience.
“I want to learn about how the different structures and functions of the brain influence behavior. Another goal is to have an impact on raising awareness about mental health and erasing the associated stigma. Hopefully this will help people seek treatment,” Sena said.
This summer, Sena is conducting research with Highlands psychology professor Linda LaGrange in the Physiological Psychology Laboratory at the university aimed at gauging the physiological responses humans have to anxiety provoking situations.
“We are measuring the physiological responses of participants who are trying to solve unsolvable anagrams, jumbled word puzzles,” Sena said. “We are using instruments that analyze heart rate, respiration rate, and sweat when faced with the anagram task.”
LaGrange said Sena’s potential as a neuroscientist is limitless.
“Rebecca is curious yet disciplined in the way she seeks to satisfy her curiosity,” said LaGrange, who chairs the Psychology Department. “Although most success in graduate school is predicated on the amount of effort students devote to their studies and research that success cannot be achieved by effort alone. Rebecca possesses an incredibly bright and nimble mind, which will set her apart from her peers.”
Sena, a 20-year-old graduate of West Las Vegas High School, said LaGrange and biology professor Jessica Snow are the two most inspirational professors she had at Highlands.
“These two professors were instrumental in my education at Highlands, which equipped me for the challenges I’ll face in graduate school,” Sena said. “Dr. Snow is very passionate about science and always willing to help her students. She received her Ph.D. through the biomedical sciences graduate program at UNM and pushed me to apply.
“Dr. LaGrange gave me the opportunity to work in the psychology lab with her even though I wasn’t a psychology student. The research with her has been invaluable. She also helped me broaden my perspective and contributed to my strong interest in how the mind works,” Sena said.
Sena said she did a research internship at the University of Colorado – Denver in summer 2017 that became the basis of an independent research project at Highlands that Snow supervised.
“At CU Denver we screened different variants of a human gene, APOBEC 3, for antibody mutation with the goal of helping create an HIV vaccine. At Highlands, I pieced together the findings from my internship and developed a research poster with Dr. Snow that I presented at our Research Day.”
Snow said Sena is a very motivated and methodical researcher.
“These qualities are absolutely essential to be successful in scientific inquiry,” Snow said. “In Ph.D. programs you need to create your own hoop to jump through and Rebecca has this kind of rare creativity and out-of-the-box thinking style to develop her own novel research. I expect her to be one of the standout students in UNM’s biomedical sciences graduate program.”
Snow said Sena is also exceptional at expressing herself in her writing, conveying complex scientific concepts she learned in class and in her own research.
Sena said she is looking forward to laboratory work and developing her own research projects.
“It’s exciting to think about how I’ll grow as a scientist and person,” Sena said. “I’m so grateful that Highlands helped me get to this point.”