Talking Real Science with Micaela Merrill

This episode of Share Science features Micaela Merrill, a junior undergraduate student at Truman State University, and one of 10 students awarded the STEM research NIL award for promising undergraduate researchers. This award is part of’s commitment to support and mentor students who are at the beginning of their STEM education and careers. In addition to a grant of $5000 each, the 10 award winners are collaborating with as brand ambassadors. empowers and connects scientists worldwide and accelerates scientific discovery with their digital research marketplaces, combining sophisticated AI technology with white glove research concierge support to enable scientists to run more innovative experiments in less time and at a lower cost.

To find out why over 100 biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies as well as the U.S. National Institutes of Health utilize their private enterprise marketplaces click here.

All right, Micaela, thanks so much for taking the time to chat with me today – it’s a pleasure to have you here. Let’s jump right into the first question: where did you grow up and have you always been interested in the sciences?

So I grew up in many different states, mostly in Pennsylvania, near Philadelphia, but also in Utah, near Salt Lake City, and I finished high school near Phoenix. I have always been interested in the sciences; when I was elementary school aged, I was homeschooled by my mom who is now a physician. She has always been interested in the sciences and made it a priority for my education as a child that we did a lot of hands-on science experiments, and she gave me lots of science books to read – all sorts of sciences, it was always incredibly interesting to me. Ever since I was, I don’t know, maybe 13 or 14, even then I knew that I wanted to be studying some type of science major in college. I wasn’t sure which one yet, but I’ve always loved the scientific method and I found it fascinating how much we’ve been able to discover in such a short amount of time. So I’m very happy to be able to call myself an up and coming scientist now.

Moving forward from there, where are you currently studying and what is your major? And can you tell us a little bit about the research that you are currently conducting?

I’m currently studying at Truman State University, which is in Kirksville, Missouri, majoring in neuroscience under the interdisciplinary studies department. The research I am currently conducting is through my summer R.E.U. (Research Experiences for Undergraduates) at Georgia State University, as well as Georgia Tech through Developmental Neuropsychology, and the lifespan lab at Georgia State.

The research project I’m working on is focused on identifying biological risk factors as well as comorbidities and social factors influencing PTSD in black populations in Atlanta, specifically for a part of the brain called the cingulum. This study utilizes a lot of neuroimaging; so we take MRI imaging to study the structural integrity of highways in the brain that link areas of visual memory to areas of emotional response, to observe how that can impact the severity of PTSD in a certain population. This research has proven to be very complex, but it’s also very far reaching in terms of its potential impact. We are building off of a previous study from about 10 years ago that used a different type of neuroimaging. Now we’re getting to look at this part of the brain from two different perspectives, and what we found is that this part of the brain, the cingulum, which we’re still learning so much about was relatively recently discovered compared to some other parts of the brain and has many different areas in it.

“Different [brain] areas may have different responses to trauma, and that can have very important implications for how this population responds to, and exhibits symptoms of PTSD. For example, the part of the cingulum that links visual memory to emotional response has higher structural integrity in the cingulum, which means those signals moving in between those two areas of the brain are essentially moving more efficiently.”

Whereas in other areas of the brain that control more complex functions such as executive functioning, those structural integrity tends to be decreased for all kinds of mental illnesses, which we’ve also seen in other areas of the cingulum. So it’s very interesting to get involved in a scientific project that’s so complex and so far reaching, as I’m just now learning how to conduct professional level scientific research in the lab. But it’s also been very rewarding and the mentorship has been very valuable as I navigate this project.

On the topic of inspiration, do you have a mentor that has played a significant or important role in your career thus far?

I would say probably my first and my most important mentor, of which I have several, but my first and most important is definitely my mom, she finished med school a couple of years ago and is now a practicing neurosurgeon at Indiana University. And to be clear, I did not just go into neuroscience because my mom did. I am also very passionate about it but that passion was inspired by her and it’s very inspiring to see her follow her dreams.

“She’s always told me that even if something is really difficult that I should follow it if I’m passionate about it, and that doing hard things such as scientific research can be a very arduous process. Neuroscience is obviously a very complex topic of study, but she’s always inspired me to follow my dreams. She’s always supported me and I’m very grateful to her for that.”

More recently, the mentorship that I received at my own university from my academic mentor, Dr Burke, the neuroscience professor who helped me craft my interdisciplinary major of neuroscience at Truman since they didn’t have one set out. Originally, we had to create that from scratch which was a very informative process. It really helped me think about my major more in depth and it helped me solidify that this is what I want to do; I’ve really had to carve my own path essentially. I’ve also appreciated the mentorship that I received from my mentors in Atlanta through my research, my mentor Olivia Holler at the G.S.C. lab, and Doctor King, they have been very instrumental in helping me learn how to do research and I really appreciate that.

Is there anything specific within this field that you’re passionate about, or is there something new and exciting other than what you’re currently doing that you hope to study in the future?

I feel like the field of neuroscience has almost unlimited applications and I’m just beginning to explore those, but there are a few specific applications of neuroscience that I am more passionate about. Currently, I have really appreciated the project that I’m working on but one other sub-field of neuroscience that has always been extremely fascinating to me is actually music neuroscience and how that can be used in a medical setting. When I was in high school, I read a lot of books by Oliver Sacks. That’s actually what helped me decide that I wanted to be a neuroscience major instead of like a psychology major or biology major. My favorite book to this day is his book, Musicophilia; how music just lights up every part of the brain in a way that basically nothing else can and how that can be used to treat so many different ailments. He used it to help someone relearn how to walk after they were paralyzed, used it to help someone sing in order to help them relearn how to talk when they had aphasia. It helps people regain some of their memories with Alzheimer’s or keep them. I’m a classically trained musician and three of my four grandparents are also classically trained musicians. It’s in my blood, so to speak, that music and neuroscience are two of my greatest passions, and so to be able to merge those two is something that I would very much like to do in the future.

Fantastic, and one last quick question for you here, do you have any advice for younger students interested in getting into research but might be intimidated or not know where to begin?

My greatest advice, and they probably hear this all the time, but my greatest advice is to get involved because you never know where you’re going to find something valuable. I mean, the way I learned about the R.E.U. that I applied to where I found my current research job was I was just walking in my science building and I saw that a seminar was coming up in five minutes about professional development. And I was like why not go in, I have nothing else to do at 12: 30 this Friday. That alone has impacted my career in such a huge way – just that small decision. I could have easily just gone home and sat on the couch, but I chose to take the time and get involved.

“So I think, say yes to as many things as you can say yes to in terms of professional development and self education and you never know what you’ll pick up and where you’ll go.”

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