Vallo ’13 Studies Seizure Suppression, Teaches Local Students about Science

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This summer, Mary Vallo '13 developed a needs assessment for the Epilepsy Foundation of Connecticut. She also volunteers in the Wesleyan Science Outreach club and plays intramural soccer. (Photo by Bill Tyner '13)

Q: Mary, what is your class year, and what are you majoring in?

A: I’m a junior, and I’m double-majoring in neuroscience and behavior and English.

Q: You’re currently working in the lab of Jan Naegele, professor of neuroscience and behavior, professor of biology. Can you tell us a bit about your research in the Naegele Lab?

A: The Naegele Lab studies temporal lobe epilepsy (TLE), which involves instances of elevated electrical activity in the brain called seizures. In cases where medication does not alleviate seizures, TLE patients experience cell death and damage in the dentate gyrus, part of the hippocampal region of the brain. Using a mouse model of TLE, our goal is to replenish the damaged neurons via stem cell injections. And since seizure-related cell death especially affects a type of interneuron that normally inhibits electrical impulses, we hope that restoring those interneurons will help to suppress seizure activity.

Q: This summer, you participated in the Wesleyan University Hughes Program, funded by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. What was your summer-long research project?

A: The project that I began over the summer analyzes brain sections from epileptic mice that have received stem cell transplants. I stain for a protein that marks transplanted cell axons and another protein called gephyrin that is found at inhibitory synapses. So far, I have found several instances where transplant axons overlap with gephyrin. These findings suggest that the stem cells form inhibitory connections that may contribute to seizure suppression.

Q: Following the Hughes Program, you worked with the Epilepsy Foundation of Connecticut (EFCT). Please elaborate on this project.

A: I worked with the EFCT to develop a needs assessment. The survey asks EFCT clients about their epilepsy and how it affects their quality of life, employment opportunities, healthcare costs, and so on. We look forward to raising enough money to print and mail the questionnaire soon because the data collected will help determine how the EFCT can better serve its clients.

Q: Why did you choose Wesleyan, and how has your experience been so far?

A: I honestly can’t remember school being this fun since about the fifth grade! The combination of small class sizes, great teaching, and hands-on learning opportunities for undergraduates makes the academics here top-notch. As you can tell by my crazy double major, I like Wesleyan’s flexibility in allowing students to explore different interests. Also, I have met many wonderful people here and have made friends who I know will remain close even after college.

Q: Are you involved in any extra-curricular activities or community service activities?

A: I enjoy volunteering at Middletown’s Snow Elementary School with the Wesleyan Science Outreach club. Wesleyan students in the course “Science Pedagogy for Elementary School Students” write lesson plans, and then they (and some volunteers like me) go to various elementary schools in Middletown and teach a different lesson each week as part of the kids’ after-school program. The lessons are very hands-on, and it’s great to see the kids get excited about science. Once per semester, the club also sponsors “Science Saturday,” when the kids and their parents visit Wesleyan and participate in fun experiments and activities. In my free time, I enjoy playing intramural soccer, playing the piano, curling up with a good book, or spending time with friends.

Q: What are your plans after you graduate?

A: After Wesleyan, I’ll probably go to graduate school of some kind. I’m not quite sure beyond that. Although I’ve been focusing a lot on research lately, I also love working with kids. We’ll see where that takes me!