TAMU-CC Ph.D. Student Wins Campus Competition with Project Focused on Learning, Memory

CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas – Xin Deng’s passion to pursue her research interests led from her home in China halfway around the Earth to work in a lab at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi. Now, that passion has turned into a level of expertise in her chosen field that resulted in a first-place finish in a campus-wide research competition.

“I grew up in a seaside city in China, so I was always interested in marine biology,” said Deng, a Ph.D. student.

Deng decided to attend Texas A&M-Corpus Christi after Dr. Riccardo Mozzachiodi, associate professor of neuroscience, invited her for a campus tour in 2017.

“He introduced me to his lab and to the animal that his lab utilizes in research, the sea slug Aplysia californica,” Deng said. “Dr. Mozzachiodi also offered me the opportunity to talk to several professors to help me become familiar with the marine biology program. He even found some graduate students in the marine biology program to meet with me and we had lunch together. It was so much fun to hear the graduate students talk about their research, classes, and experience of living here. This campus visit made me believe that my Ph.D. study and research would be very fulfilled and wonderful!”

Researchers in Mozzachiodi’s lab are studying the simple brain of Aplysia to learn more about the brain’s process of learning and memory when an organism experiences fear. His lab combines biomedical research, marine biology, and neuroscience.

“A fundamental brain function necessary for survival is to balance the expression of defensive and non-defensive behaviors following an aversive experience,” Mozzachiodi and Deng said. “One of the research focuses in Dr. Mozzachiodi’s lab is to characterize the formation, storage, and flexibility of this balance at the behavioral and neural-circuit levels. The acquired knowledge may ultimately provide important insights into those neurological disorders in which the correct balance between defensive and nondefensive behaviors is disrupted.”

In spring 2021, with years of research experience under her belt, Deng presented her project at the Three Minute Thesis (3MT®) competition, sponsored by the College of Graduate Studies. Developed by the University of Queensland, 3MT® is an international scholarly communication competition.

The 3MT® presentation challenges graduate students to deliver a summary of their research in just three minutes, a process that could otherwise take nine hours. Goals of the competition are to celebrate graduate students’ research while improving their skills in presentation, academic, and research communication skills.

In her presentation, Deng explained key aspects of her work.

“My project focuses on the mechanisms underlying the memory deficits caused by prolonged food deprivation in Aplysia,” Deng said. She said Aplysia is used as the model organism in the research because of its ability to sustain up to 14 days of food deprivation without experiencing any deterioration in health or nervous system basal function.

“We are studying a universal phenomenon that animals learn to fear after exposure to noxious stimuli, such as attacks from a predator,” Deng said. “Learned fear in Aplysia is mediated by the neurotransmitter serotonin. A recent publication from our lab found a memory deficit in that learned fear in Aplysia was prevented by prolonged food deprivation.”

Based on that finding, Deng’s work investigates how changes in selected neurons are altered by aversive training and prolonged food deprivation, and the role of serotonin in the mechanisms of prolonged food deprivation-induced memory impairments. Experiments in her project are conducted using behavioral, cellular, and biochemical approaches.

Her research in Mozzachiodi’s lab was funded by the National Institute of General Medical Sciences and the Texas Comprehensive Research Fund. She also received a research grant from the TAMU-CC Division of Research and Innovation.

“As an international student, I received the President’s International Excellence Award for three consecutive years,” Deng said. “I have been supported by the Marine Biology Ph.D. program Research Assistantship since 2018. I actively presented my work at local and international conferences in 2019 and 2021, and I presented posters at the Society for Neuroscience (SfN) meeting, which is the largest international neuroscience conference.”

Deng also is one of the 2020 recipients of the prestigious SfN Trainee Professional Development Award, which recognizes undergraduate and graduate students and postdoctoral fellows who demonstrate scientific merit and excellence in research worldwide. She is working on two manuscripts from her dissertation project.

“Our team is actively involved in outreach activities,” she said. “In March, I led a presentation virtually at the Metro Elementary School Family Science Night with Robert Mueller, who is another graduate student in Dr. Mozzachiodi’s lab. We showed our research, behavioral experiments with Aplysia, and lab equipment.”

Other top finishers in the 3MT® competition were Derry Xu, second place, and Abhishek Phadke, People’s Choice Award winner.

Deng is eligible to compete again next spring in the regional 3MT® competition.

Deng will present her doctoral dissertation in two weeks. She plans to graduate in August and continue her neurobiological research as a postdoctoral fellow.