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Ph.D. student joins prestigious cohort of Gilliam fellows

A photo of Cristina Rivera Quiles, Ph.D. student in MSU’s Neuroscience Program.
Cristina Rivera Quiles, a doctoral student in MSU’s Neuroscience Program. Courtesy photo

Cristina Rivera Quiles, a second year Ph.D. student at Michigan State University, has received a Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) Gilliam Fellowship for Advanced Study. The Gilliam program invests in graduate students from populations historically excluded and underrepresented in science to prepare them to become scientific leaders. The award, totaling $53,000 per year for up to three years, will support Rivera Quiles in the final three years of her dissertation.

“It is an honor to be awarded the Gilliam fellowship; I’m very humbled and a little shocked,” said Rivera Quiles, a doctoral student in MSU’s Neuroscience Program in the College of Natural Science (NatSci). “When I heard about this fellowship a few years ago, it seemed unreachable because they fund such a small number of students. This is a validation of my desire to become a leader in science.”

Gilliam fellowships are given to student-advisor pairings; Rivera Quiles and her advisor, physiology Associate Professor Michelle Mazei-Robison, were selected as a team. Applications are evaluated on the quality of the research, the student’s potential as an academic leader, and on the dedication of the advisor and institution to the growth of scientists from historically excluded and underrepresented groups. Rivera Quiles and Mazei-Robison were among 51 advisor-student pairs selected for the 2022 cohort.

“I am incredibly proud of Cristina for being named an HHMI Gilliam fellow, and pleased that HHMI recognized her tremendous scientific potential,” said Mazei-Robison. “This is a unique award in that it includes training for me as the scientific mentor and funds to promote diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives within the graduate program. Thus, Cristina’s award is impressive because it not only supports her own research training but provides resources to improve training for all neuroscience graduate students at MSU.”

Rich Schwartz, NatSci associate dean for graduate studies, nominated Rivera Quiles and Mazei-Robison.

“I’m thrilled that Cristina has been awarded this fellowship,” Schwartz said. “This award not only honors her initial achievements as a young scientist but recognizes the mentorship of Dr. Mazei-Robison and the excellent environment that the Neuroscience Program provides to a diversity of students. This is a deservedly auspicious start for Cristina’s scientific career.”

Growing up in Puerto Rico, Rivera Quiles was disheartened by the prevalence of drug abuse there and in the United States. Knowing many people and some family members who suffered from drug abuse disorders, she sought to help minimize the stigma and work toward better treatment.

As she developed a passion for neuroscience and the way drugs can change the brain and manipulate neurons, she decided to study the neuroscience behind the opioid disorder. Despite regulation of prescription opioid drugs, more than 70 percent of overdose deaths are caused by opioids. Better understanding of the neurobiology behind opioid abuse could lead to better treatments.

When Rivera Quiles joined Mazei-Robison’s lab in 2020, they were studying changes in ventral tegmental area (VTA) dopamine neurons, which are critical for drug use and reward. They have recently found that chronic morphine causes an increase in the expression of a peptide called Neuromedin S (NMS).

The goal of Rivera Quiles’s research is to identify what role NMS might have in morphine behaviors. She’s found that activation of neurons that express NMS in the VTA causes an increase in morphine induced locomotion which is a very well characterized morphine behavior in mice. The next step is to identify what happens when these neurons are inhibited. In preliminary findings, when these neurons are inhibited, morphine locomotion decreases. The funding from this fellowship will help her continue this work and gain a better understanding of the role of NMS in opioid use disorder.

An important benefit of the Gilliam program is that it provides a community of current fellows and alumni of the program. Rivera Quiles will have a chance to present her research at Gilliam’s annual meeting and will network with other fellows at HHMI science meetings. The program also offers leadership and professional development workshops.

“When you get to know people who have made it and have been through a lot of the same trials as you, it motivates you to work harder,” Rivera Quiles said. “Everyone wants to build each other up. I’m looking forward to helping the next round of applicants.” 


Banner image: Micrograph showing the ventral tegmental area of a mouse brain, a brain region critical for reward. The red cells are dopamine neurons, and the green cells are Neuromedin-S neurons. Credit: Mazei-Robison lab