Mitra Miri (Neuroscience) is fascinated by the brain. Her dissertation research focuses on seizures and what inhibits them on a cellular level. She is motivated not only to break new ground in the lab, but also to make neuroscience accessible to non-scientists.
“As we learn more about how the brain functions and malfunctions, it will become increasingly important to disseminate this knowledge and the value of our research to the public. Many times K-12 teachers find neuroscience to be intimidating and inaccessible and therefore do not feel that they have the resources they need to properly teach brain-related material. As a neuroscientist, I believe it is my duty to be a science educator and take an active role in helping create a brain-science literate population. In doing so, I can also act as an advocate for brain science research and develop students who are familiar with basic neuroscience concepts and terminology as well as have an understanding of how scientists learn about the brain. Honestly, it is also incredibly rewarding to work with young students who have such raw curiosity and enthusiasm. Working with them reminds me why I first became interested in the brain,” she says.
Mitra has been a Fellow at the Graduate School’s Office for Diversity and Equal Opportunity (ODEO), mentored a local student through the Hill Neighborhood Mentoring Program, and worked as a graduate assistant for the Science, Technology and Research Scholars (STARS) Program, which is designed to support women, minority, economically underprivileged, and other historically underrepresented students in the sciences, engineering, and mathematics. But her most ambitious volunteer project is probably Brain Education Day.
She has been a coordinator of Brain Education Day for the past three years, working with fellow-student Nikki Woodward (Neuroscience), in collaboration with ODEO and the Yale Pathways to Science Program. The day-long event brings about 100 local public school students to campus, where they visit labs and interact with graduate students, undergraduates, medical students, post-doctoral fellows, and faculty. Last year’s program included sheep brain dissections and sessions on comparative neuroanatomy, neurophysiology, and sensation and perception.
Each year, Assistant Dean Michelle Nearon leads a session for parents on how to prepare their children to pursue higher education.
“I cannot think of a better way to encourage young students to consider studying science as an option than reaching out to their parents,” says Nearon. “This and similar programs are necessary to address the deficit in the higher education pipeline. I’m delighted to be a part of it.”
“This event has grown each year,” Mitra says. “We draw most of our participants from the Pathways to Science Program, whose mission is to increase the participation of traditionally underrepresented groups in the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) fields. One benefit of collaborating with the Pathways program is that they have a long-established relationship with the New Haven public schools.” Pathways to& Science is open to students in grades 6 through 12 who attend public schools in New Haven, West Haven, and Orange and are nominated by science or math teachers. There is no charge for participation.
Brain Education Day is supported by ODEO, Pathways to Science, the National Science Foundation, the Interdepartmental Neuroscience Program, the Neurobiology Department, and the Dana Foundation.
In addition to her work on Brain Education Day, Mitra takes part in the Yale Neuroscience Outreach Program, which is dedicated to promoting knowledge about and interest in neuroscience to local K-12 students through school visits. “Our goal is to teach basic concepts of neuroscience through hands-on activities, introduce students to neuroscience research, provide students with positive role models, and highlight the importance of understanding brain function,” she says.
Her dissertation research in Jess Cardin’s lab explores “the role of specific populations of interneurons in regulating network activity, and how those roles change with sensory context, behavioral state, and disease. My work aims to determine the roles of distinct sources of inhibition in seizure generation.” She uses a combination of optical and electrophysiological tools to determine what happens during the development of a seizure to individual interneurons (which link different kinds of nerve cells) and multiple cell types in the hippocampus. The hippocampus, located in the cerebral cortex, is very sensitive to electrical stimulation and is often the focus of epileptic seizures.
“I believe electrophysiology – the study of the electrical properties and activity of brain cells – is one of the most quantitatively and qualitatively satisfying ways to understand the interactions of the many cell types within the brain and how their dysfunction may lead to pathology,” she says.
Born and raised in Austin, Texas, she graduated from the University of Texas, San Antonio, with a major in biology. She came to Yale because of the strength of the neuroscience program and because she “was impressed by the collaborative research environment here.” Mitra is supported by a National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship and a Ford Foundation Diversity Fellowship.