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NIH selects Perez as model of the minority neuroscientist

Posted on Tuesday, December 11, 2012 · Volume: XLV · Issue: 25

Stephanie Perez, a graduate student who is pursuing her Ph.D., inspires other young South Texans to consider a career in neuroscience research.
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Stephanie Perez, a graduate student who is pursuing her Ph.D., inspires other young South Texans to consider a career in neuroscience research. clear graphic

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Contact: Will Sansom, 210-567-2579

SAN ANTONIO (Dec. 11, 2012) — Stephanie Perez has come a long way since she was a teenage mom living in friends’ homes and at the Seton Home for young women in San Antonio’s South Side. Now 31, Perez is a graduate student in the Department of Pharmacology at the UT Health Science Center San Antonio, where she expects to finish her Ph.D. in December 2013.

This fall, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) tapped Perez to discuss her experiences with minority students in the NIH ENDURE Program. The ENDURE Program aims to attract minority undergraduate students into doctoral programs in the neurosciences. Perez spoke to the students during the Society for Neuroscience 2012 Conference in New Orleans, La.

START-UP encourages neuroscience careers
The UT Health Science Center partnered with The University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA), Trinity, the University of the Incarnate Word, St. Mary’s and Our Lady of the Lake University to create a San Antonio version of ENDURE.

The NIH-funded program is called START-UP (South Texas Advanced Research Training Undergraduate Program). It is different from other programs in that it is year-round, enabling students to spend an intensive 10-12 hours a week in mentors’ labs, said Alan Frazer, Ph.D., professor and chair of pharmacology in the School of Medicine at the Health Science Center and director of START-UP.

Perez is studying schizophrenia in an animal model, in particular how the hippocampus regulates the dopamine system. Her thesis advisor is Daniel Lodge, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Pharmacology. The hippocampus is a brain structure involved in emotions and memory. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that appears to be involved in pleasure and response to rewards. She has presented four posters of the research at Society for Neuroscience meetings.

Nothing is impossible
“My message to the ENDURE students was that — no matter what — if science is what you want to do, nothing’s impossible,” Perez said.

She was born to devoted parents who raised her in a good home in San Antonio. She left at 18 amid clashes, moving out to live with friends. “My parents raised me right but I didn’t listen,” she said. “I just had to make my own mistakes.”

A graduate of Providence High School, Perez found out she was pregnant on a Friday, told her parents the next day, and started classes at UTSA the following Monday. Despite being a young mom and sitting out a year, she graduated from college at the same time as her friends. Today her son, Cristian, is 12, loves karate and is a math whiz. They have a close relationship with her parents. When she stays late at the lab, her parents pick up Cristian.

Perez went on to earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees in biology at UTSA. After she finished the master’s degree, her mentor, Edwin Barea-Rodriguez, Ph.D., told her she needed to keep going for her Ph.D. She declined, electing to teach middle school for a year. She did not find it rewarding and went back to Dr. Barea-Rodriguez, who had one condition for giving his advice — apply for Ph.D. programs. She was accepted at her hometown UT Health Science Center in 2009.

“I had to leave science for a short time to know that this is what I really wanted to do,” she said. “I tell young people, if you’re not sure science is for you, try something else for a while.”

Inspiring others
Recently she’s been in contact with the Seton Home, where she visited to talk to the girls. “I wanted them to have me as a contact if they are interested in going to college,” she said.

The next rung of Perez’s scientific ladder is a postdoctoral fellowship. The NIH Endure meeting was helpful in that regard, as she was able to network with neuroscientists from Penn State, Stanford and Johns Hopkins. Years after her humble beginning, the world is her oyster.

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The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, one of the country’s leading health sciences universities, ranks in the top 3 percent of all institutions worldwide receiving federal funding. Research and other sponsored program activity totaled $231 million in fiscal year 2011. The university’s schools of medicine, nursing, dentistry, health professions and graduate biomedical sciences have produced more than 28,000 graduates. The $739.6 million operating budget supports eight campuses in San Antonio, Laredo, Harlingen and Edinburg. For more information on the many ways “We make lives better®,” visit www.uthscsa.edu.

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