From the series Opening Doors

Mother’s affliction motivated student to participate in Wright State’s GRAD-PREP program

Editor’s note: This is the last of four stories in the “Opening Doors” series about Wright State programs that provide laboratory research and training opportunities in the biomedical sciences for students of underrepresented minorities. The programs are directed by the Boonshoft School of Medicine’s Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology.


Photo of Christina Estrada

Her quest to learn more about epilepsy drove Christina Estrada’s interest in neuropsychology, a field that attempts to connect the dots between biology and behavior.

When doctors could not find a way to stop her mother’s epileptic seizures, Christina Estrada decided she would.

Her short-term goal was to find better doctors to stop the seizures that struck her mother without warning. But her long-term goal is to improve care for people with epilepsy and other neurological disorders by becoming a neuropsychologist and making a career that combines research and treatment.

Estrada holds a bachelor’s degree in psychology from her hometown Portland State University in Oregon and is now enrolled in Wright State’s GRAD-PREP Biomedical Graduate Preparation Program, a National Institutes of Health–funded program that provides research and academic training in the biomedical and behavioral sciences. She hopes the program will give her the laboratory training and research experience she needs for a successful application to a top-quality graduate program.

Her road to GRAD-PREP really started in high school, when she found herself playing an important role in her mother’s care. Estrada worked full time to help support her family and took her first two years of higher education at a community college so she could stay close to home.

At the same time, she sought more effective medical care for her mother. “Her neurologist just wasn’t doing enough to help her, so I started taking things into my own hands,” she said.

Her quest to learn more about epilepsy drove Estrada’s interest in neuropsychology, a field that attempts to connect the dots between biology and behavior. Her research paid off when she found a research neurologist who took an interest in her mother’s case. She also learned ways to manage factors that could worsen her mother’s condition—by reducing stress, for example. Today, she said, “My mom’s story is a success story because she no longer has seizures.”

Estrada managed to earn a baccalaureate degree. But getting accepted into a Ph.D. program, especially in her chosen specialty, was problematic. The application process is highly competitive, and successful candidates often have lab training and experience.

She searched the Internet for ideas. Visiting the National Institutes of Health (NIH) website one day, she “followed a trail of links” to a page about the GRAD-PREP program at Wright State’s Boonshoft School of Medicine in the Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology. It is directed by Mariana Morris, Ph.D., Distinguished Professor of Research; chair, Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology; and assistant vice president for graduate programs.

Estrada learned that participants in the yearlong program earn an annual salary of $21,000 with health benefits, tuition remission, travel expenses for local and regional meetings and guidance through the Ph.D. program selection and application process. It would also enable her to work closely with faculty mentors.

Estrada met the minority requirement because of her Hispanic heritage. She applied for the program and was accepted. In July 2011, she packed her car and drove 2,300 miles to Dayton.

In GRAD-PREP, Estrada works in the lab as a university staff member. “I manage a genetically altered mouse colony. The particular model that I’m working with has a genetic mutation associated with Parkinson’s disease,” she said.

She also has a research project, which involves observing how maternal care affects mouse pups with Parkinson’s—what effects are from the disease itself, and what might be the result of different treatment by their mothers.

Mary Key, assistant director of the GRAD-PREP program, said participants receive a well-rounded experience in laboratory work and research. A valuable part of that experience is the opportunity to work closely with a faculty mentor.

“The mentor will be able to give them very good letters of recommendation to not only get into a graduate program, but get funding and assistantships in order to be able to support themselves while they’re in school,” Key said.

Estrada said the program is moving her toward her educational goals. “I think it’s an excellent program for someone in my position, who’s looking to become a more competitive applicant, but who needs a good amount of research experience,” she said.

She hopes to see her research results published, and she is planning to make a presentation about it at an international psychology conference in Chicago in May. But she said her goals aren’t just about publications and career milestones.

“My mom’s success story led me to search for a career where I could help others that were battling with neurological disorders that are not well understood. It’s personal, I guess,” she said, and then reflected, “What isn’t personal?”

The 2012 GRAD-PREP program will begin June 11, 2012. Applications will be accepted until all positions are filled.

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Series: Opening Doors

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