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UCL-NIMH Joint Doctoral Program in Neuroscience

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>> JOBERT VARGAS: My name is Jobert Vargas and I am a UCL-NIH Predoctoral Fellow. I have been in the program for 2 and 1/2 years now. At the NIH, I am in the Biochemistry Section of NINDS, which is led by Dr. Richard Youle. At UCL, I am in the Molecular Neuropathobiology Lab of Dr. Giampietro Schiavo, within the Sobell Motor Neuroscience and Movement Disorders.

The focus of my research is trying to understand how our cells accomplish a very important process called autophagy, which literally means "self-eating," wherein our cells degrade their own components, such as mitochondria, in order to maintain their health. Our cells need to continually make new intracellular components to survive. But they also have to clear out their old, damaged parts, and when the cells have to, they employ selective autophagy to remove those damaged components. If the autophagic process breaks down, our cells end up building up a lot damaged parts and junk that inevitably have a negative impact on cellular fitness. Selective autophagy is especially important for our brain because our brain cells are quite sensitive to the build-up of junk components. Because of how important it is for our brain, selective autophagy is associated with many neurodegenerative disorders, like Parkinson's disease and ALS.

Before I joined the program, I did a one-year stint as a Postbacc researcher at NIMH, which by the way was a great experience! I found out about the UCL-NIH joint partnership then, and decided I wanted to be part of it. I really value developing a diverse research scientific perspective. I believe having a broad scientific vision really helps in the creative process of research. This belief was why I decided to pursue training here. I thought it would be a great opportunity for me to be trained in two pioneering research institutions, in UCL and NIH.

Also, what was really appealing to me was about the partnership was having two PhD co-mentors and being able to work in both of their labs. I thought it would be a great opportunity to learn from two renowned experts within their respective fields and combine this learning experience to mold my own research interests. I think the level of independence that I was given as a student and the pace at which the program moves is unique and is quite a departure from traditional U.S. PhD programs. Since there are no rotations or required classes, you really have to be able to do your research right away. You have to think deeply about the scientific problems you want to address very early on in your training. This aspect is really challenging but is also very rewarding. It is not very often that, as a graduate student, one is able to spearhead a fully-funded, international collaborative project between two really amazing labs. This has been a great privilege for me.

Lastly, it is also a unique experience to get to spend time at the NIH, as well as in UCL, and live in both Washington DC and London. My fellowship training thus far has been an incredibly positive experience. My mentors are invested in my research training, are very encouraging of my ideas, and ultimately care about my progress towards becoming an independent scientist.

I think the most important thing I am learning from my training so far is that the more I engage in research, the more I realize just how much I like it! I find the satisfaction and joy of of novel discovery to be tremendously gratifying. My working environment has been enjoyable and stimulating. Our group works extremely hard but we also have a lot of fun! I am lucky to have a wonderful relationship with my mentors. They make sure that my experiments are well thought out and my training is rigorous.

Also, I definitely work most optimally when I share research endeavors with others because I am delighted with working with people who are equally excited about science. Plus, it's really fun to celebrate a surprising result with someone you work with! That is, for sure, the best part of collaboration! I would recommend this training program for anyone passionate about scientific research.