I am a Johns Hopkins “lifer.” I first came to Hopkins as an undergrad and studied Biomedical Engineering. While working on my senior year project, I became more fascinated with a career in biomedical research. Following graduation, I worked as a technician in the same lab to learn more about interferons and the immune system. To obtain formal training in research techniques, methods, and approaches in the biological sciences, I became a graduate student in the BCMB (Biochemistry, Cellular, and Molecular Biology) program at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. I obtained my Ph.D. degree in the laboratory of Dr. Andrew Feinberg, where I studied epigenetic mechanisms of human diseases. I then became a postdoctoral fellow in the laboratory of Dr. James Potash in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, where I studied the role of stress in psychiatric disorders. My research program is a culmination of the experiences, training, and insights that I was fortunate to obtain at Hopkins.
There is so little that we know about the genes and neuronal processes that underlie the etiology and progression of psychiatric disorders. Psychiatry is a challenging field because it is a study of the mind, behavior, and emotions, and unlike oncology, the patient brains are largely inaccessible. With such challenges, we use animal paradigms to study component behaviors of psychiatric symptoms and innovative tools to identify genes and targets that may be responsible. We also use peripheral tissues such as patient blood to assess their potential as surrogates for the brain.
Specifically, we are interested in understanding the role of the HPA axis and the neuroendocrine system in psychiatric disorders. Our current focus is on the stress hormone cortisol and how chronic exposure to cortisol is a risk factor for several psychiatric disorders such as depression, bipolar disorder, and anxiety. Since stress exposure is a consequence of our interaction with the environment, we use the tools and techniques of epigenetics. We employ both candidate and genome-wide approaches to identify and characterize gene targets and pathways in both rodents and humans. Recently, our work has expanded to include molecular substrates of addiction to drugs and alcohol.