Sophomore wins UCR neuroscience award

Author: Iqbal Pittalwala
July 3, 2024

Tara Gao, an undergraduate student at UC Riverside who excelled in academics and performed significant mentored research, has won the Austin and Helen Riesen Neuroscience Award for Research and Academic Excellence.

Funded by Austen and Helen Riesen, the award is given each year to the top undergraduate student in the neuroscience program — typically, a graduating senior. Gao, however, received it at the end of her second year. It consists of a certificate and a check of up to $500.

Tara Gao
Tara Gao.

Gao’s research, under the mentorship of Sachiko Haga-Yamanaka, an assistant professor of molecular, cell and systems biology, focuses on investigating the role of the medial amygdala in regulating innate fear-related defensive behaviors. The medial amygdala is a part of the amygdala, a brain structure known for processing emotions, particularly anxiety, fear, and aggression. Gao explained that animals can detect predator cues through multiple pathways, one of which is through the sense of smell, and respond to threats with defensive behaviors to increase their chances of survival. 

“My research aims to investigate the necessity of the medial amygdala in the mechanisms of innate fear and defensive behavior induced by a predator odor, and identify shifts in behavioral patterns upon changes in brain activity levels,” said Gao, who plans to graduate in Spring 2025 with a bachelor’s degree in neuroscience.

According to Gao, innate fear and defensive behaviors are common in animals, including humans. 

“The outcomes of my and the lab’s research will help map the neural circuitry associated with intrinsic fear responses to predator cues, providing valuable insights into the neurological basis of fear,” she said. “Exploring the role of the medial amygdala in defensive behavior may be relevant to understanding the neural basis of unconditioned emotional or psychiatric disorders, such as phobias.”

Receiving the award has boosted Gao’s confidence in her abilities and motivated her to pursue her research with even greater dedication and enthusiasm, she said. 

“I am thrilled and grateful to be recognized by the department, and I cannot wait to build on this achievement and contribute further to the field of neuroscience,” she said. “I sincerely thank my mentor and all lab members for supporting me and creating an enriching environment.”

Haga-Yamanaka said investigating the roles of the medial amygdala in innate fear-related responses to predator odors in mice demands a good skill set and deep understanding of behavioral neurophysiology. 

“Despite having limited prior experience with these subjects and techniques, Tara demonstrated eagerness to learn and diligently pursued this technically and intellectually demanding project,” Haga-Yamanaka said. “Importantly, I've consistently observed her willingness to accept critiques from senior lab members and use them for personal growth. I am particularly impressed by her achievement in balancing research with her challenging coursework.” 

After graduating from UCR, Gao aims to pursue a doctoral degree in neuroscience and thereafter a research career. Her goal is to conduct research in neural circuitry and neuroethology to investigate how behavior is initiated and controlled by the central nervous system, as well as to study corresponding disorders. 

Her other awards include a UCR Mini-grant for Undergraduate Research, a nomination for a Barry Goldwater Scholarship, and the best poster presenter in the 2024 Undergraduate Research Symposium at UCR.