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Transforming the understanding
and treatment of mental illnesses.

KI-NIH Collaborative Doctoral Program in Neuroscience

Student Profiles

Current Students

Areg Peltekian
Areg Peltekian - 2020

Areg received his BS in Physiology & Neuroscience and MS in Biology at the University of California, San Diego on account of his desire to study the many degenerative diseases of the central nervous system and the critical role that neural circuitry development and disrepair play in their initiation.

This fascination would lead him to a post-baccalaureate fellowship in Dr. Yoke Peng Loh’s lab at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) where he assessed the function of protein Carboxypeptidase E as a neuroprotective trophic factor capable of preventing stress-induced cell death and cognitive decline. He would later transition into Dr. Chris McBain’s group and demonstrate how the developmental loss of synaptic NMDA-type glutamate receptor (NMDAR)-mediated calcium signaling in distinct classes of GABAergic hippocampal interneurons (HINs) essential for synchronizing network dynamics through a transgenic mouse line results in aberrant system-wide differential expression of genes relating to schizophrenia via transcriptomic profiling and validation with immunohistochemistry. Such work provides a road map for the comprehensive examination of modulatory signaling pathways in HIN subtypes and other sparse cell types through next-generation sequencing approaches.

Enrolling in the NIH-KI Neuroscience PhD program under the mentorship of Dr. McBain at NICHD and Dr. André Fisahn at the Karolinska Institute, Areg will build upon his previous experience in examining cellular and genetic irregularities associated with HIN inhibitory synaptic transmission and further explore how these changes coalesce into broader deficits in neural oscillatory activity, specifically investigating the modulatory mechanisms of gamma oscillations disrupted in the context of Alzheimer’s disease pathology.

Dorian Cheff
Dorian Cheff - 2017

Dorian was born and raised in White Lake, MI, and attended college at the University of Michigan where she graduated with a B.S. in Neuroscience in 2015. As an undergraduate, she worked under Dr. Anuska Andjelkovic-Zochowska in the Pathology Department, focusing on characterizing claudin-protein interactions in the tight junctions of the blood-brain barrier in cases of chronic stroke. In 2013, she was awarded a Biomedical and Life Sciences Summer Fellowship through the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program to continue her research in Dr. Andjelkovic-Zochowska’s lab, concluding her internship with an oral presentation to her peers and faculty of her findings at UROP’s summer symposium.

After graduation, Dorian joined Dr. Matthew Hall’s group at the National Center for Advancing Translational Science (NCATS) Chemical Genomics Center as a post-baccalaureate Intramural Research Training Award (IRTA) Fellow. There, she worked to develop and miniaturize biochemical and cell-based assays for high-throughput evaluation of novel small molecule inhibitors for epigenetic and metabolic cancer targets. Dorian also worked on small molecule matrix combination studies in order to identify synergistic combinations for more efficacious therapies.

As a NIH/KI student, Dorian will divide her time between the Chemical Genomics Center with Dr. Matthew Hall and the Department of Medical Biochemistry and Biophysics (MBB) with Dr. Elias Arnér at the Karolinska Institute, characterizing and identifying inhibitors of glutathione peroxidase (GPx) 1 and 4 as a potential therapeutic target for multidrug-resistant glioblastoma multiforme.

Elliot Glotfelty
Elliot Glotfelty - 2017

Elliot Glotfelty received B.S. degrees in Chemistry and Biology at Towson University in 2011. During his senior year at Towson, Elliot had the opportunity to participate in a research project investigating the neuroanatomy of the chronic stress pathway. Following graduation, Elliot’s newly fostered passion for research led to employment in an educational fellowship with the US Army Medical Research Institute of Chemical Defense, where he worked on a variety of projects and publications under the mentorship of Dr. Patrick McNutt. Elliot worked under Dr. McNutt until mid 2017, prior to matriculation into the NIH-KI GPP program.

Along with a passion for science and research, Elliot has lived and volunteered abroad in both Thailand and Honduras, working with international non-governmental organizations on website development, research projects, and educational infrastructure. Science education and cross cultural interaction has also been a passion for Elliot, marrying the two as he has worked for several years developing science curriculum and teaching for an online English as a Second Language school based out of China. The opportunity to work and study in both the United States at the NIH and Sweden at the Karolinska Instituet was the perfect match for Elliot’s pursuit of his PhD in a neuroscience program.

Starting in Fall 2017, Elliot will begin his thesis work at the National Institute of Aging in Baltimore under the mentorship of Dr. Nigel Greig. Dr. Greig is a senior investigator at the Gerontology Research Center, where he has been developing and introducing drug interventions for Alzheimer’s disease. In combination with Dr. Greig’s pharmacological expertise, Elliot will work under the co-mentorship of Dr. Lars Olson at the Karolinska Instituet, who has specialized in the development and characterization of a variety of transgenic mouse models for neurodegenerative diseases. Elliot’s focus of research will involve investigation and interruption of neurodegeneration, specifically in models of Alzheimer’s disease. Elliot comes into the NIH-GPP program with a wide variety of skillsets, with specific expertise in microscopy and immunostaining techniques.

Elliot is a certified yoga teacher and enjoys practicing yoga and meditation in his free time. In addition, Elliot enjoys photography, traveling, and playing guitar and singing with his band in local venues.

Troy Dildine
Troy Dildine - 2016

Troy is pursuing a PhD in neuroscience between the National Center for Complementary & Integrative Health at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Clinical Neuroscience Department at Karolinska Institutet with Drs. Lauren Atlas & Andreas Olsson. Troy is using neuroimaging and psychophysiological measures, along with computational modeling and machine learning techniques, to study patient-doctor interactions and health disparities in pain. Troy received a BA in Neuroscience with honors from Dartmouth College, spent a year as a research assistant at the University of Colorado Boulder, and spent two year as a postbac IRTA at the NIH. Outside of the laboratory, Troy enjoys running (to the top of mountains), gardening (with his hands full of dirt), and fikas (with lots of friends and colleagues)!


Heather L. Rusch
Heather L. Rusch - 2020

Heather L. Rusch is a Clinical Investigator at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). She earned her MS in Neuroscience at Columbia University in the City of New York and completed her clinical training at the New York State Psychiatric Institute, PTSD Research and Treatment Program under the direction of Dr. Yuval Neria. Upon graduation, Heather joined Dr. Jessica Gill’s lab at the NIH as a Senior Clinical Research Associate. Here she utilized a combination of genomic, proteomic, neural, and physiological markers to determine the factors associated with resilience to, and risk for, insomnia, depression, and PTSD following mild traumatic brain injury in human participants.

In 2017, Heather matriculated into the NIH-Karolinska PhD Graduate Partnership Program in Clinical Neuroscience under the mentorship of Dr. Mats Lekander and Dr. Julie Lasselin. Her thesis focused on the links between perceived stress, sleep, and inflammation and actions to translate these findings to foster psychological, physiological, and molecular resilience in humans. To achieve this, Heather utilized a variety of techniques including behavioral studies (e.g., mindfulness meditation), ultra-sensitive digital biomarker detection technology, and advanced RNA sequencing applications. This integrative approach capitalizes on burgeoning advances in neuroscience and may inform new insights into pathogenic markers and targeted therapeutics for individuals suffering with stress-related disorders.

In 2020, Heather successfully defended her PhD. The health policy implications of her research have been featured in several popular health magazines and on Psychology Today. Heather is currently serving as Co-Investigator on an international study investigating the effects of different behavioral treatments on increased resilience in healthcare workers that care for patients with COVID-19.

Neel Nabar
Neel Nabar - 2019

My name is Neel Nabar and I’m a joint MD/PhD Training Fellow through the NIH-KI partnership program and Sidney Kimmel Medical College at Thomas Jefferson University. I am also the co-founder of a bio-pharmaceutical company, Cognition Life Science, and a delegate to the American Medical Association. Prior to joining the NIH, I worked on immune based therapies at the Byrd Alzheimer’s Institute (Tampa, FL) where I developed a candidate vaccine for Alzheimer’s disease. I was also an integral member of the team that first showed the potential therapeutic effect of THC on Alzheimer’s, and have been featured in several documentaries and political talk shows to discuss the health policy implications of this work. Currently, I work with Dr. John Kehrl on innate immune mechanisms in macrophages harboring Parkinson’s disease mutations, and have a strong interest in digital health.

Lora D. Weidner
Lora D. Weidner - 2017

Lora Deuitch Weidner received a BS in Neuroscience from the University of Pittsburgh. From there, she worked as a research specialist for two years in a PET imaging lab at the same university. During this time, she helped to conduct PET imaging studies in patients with drug dependence, schizophrenia, as well as healthy participants. Lora’s mentor, Dr. Rajesh Narendran, told her about the NIH-KI graduate partnership program after he attended a presentation given by a then current NIH-KI GPP student. Lora joined the NIH-KI GPP program in 2013 under mentorship from Dr. Robert B. Innis (NIMH), Dr. Matthew D. Hall (NCI/NCATS), and Dr. Jan Mulder (KI). Her thesis was “ABC transporters and inflammation in drug-resistant epilepsy,” which involved measuring the expression of ABC transporters and inflammatory proteins in surgical brain tissue samples. In addition, Lora also validated the use of two ABC transporter inhibitors for their use in PET imaging. Lora successfully defended her thesis in 2017.

After graduating, Lora continued her PET imaging research under Dr. Innis as a post-doctorate. During this time, she conducted a PET imaging study investigating the expression of PDE4 in patients with McCune-Albright syndrome compared to healthy controls. In 2019 Lora left NIH to pursue a career at the Center for Devices and Radiological Health (CDRH) at the Food and Drug Administration. Lora is currently a scientific reviewer for nuclear medicine and radiation therapy devices and finds the job both challenging and rewarding.

Saket Milind Nigam
Saket Milind Nigam - 2017

Saket Milind Nigam, a native Stockholmer, grew up in both Sweden and the US throughout his childhood. After completing a B.Sc. in Human Physiology at the University of Oregon and an M.Sc. in Biomedicine at the Karolinska Institute, Saket entered the NIH-KI GPP in 2012 to keep a foot in both countries while benefitting from the unique learning opportunity of working between two labs. He was supervised jointly by Dr. Mark Mattson (LNS, NIA) and Dr. Lennart Brodin (Department of Neuroscience). Cumulatively, his PhD thesis aimed to uncover mechanisms for amyloid precursor protein processing and trafficking with relevance to Alzheimer’s Disease (AD). Notably, he published work on the role that exercise and BDNF have on the pathogenesis of AD. Saket completed his Ph.D. in June 2017 and hopes to translate his research into solutions for AD patients.

Stal Shrestha
Stal Shrestha - 2014

Stal Shrestha started his research career at Gary Strichartz’s lab at Harvard. There, he studied behavioral and cellular mechanisms of postoperative pain. His findings resulted in a first-author publication in the Journal of Pain (2009). While presenting his research at the SfN meeting, he learned about the joint NIH-Karolinska PhD graduate partnership program in Clinical Neuroscience. In 2010, he matriculated to this program under the mentorship of Robert Innis, and Per Svenningsson. He conducted translational research using PET imaging and molecular techniques. In 2014, he successfully defended his PhD with eight publications—four were first-authored. Notably, all of these were published in major scientific journals prior to his dissertation. One of these—a high-risk, high-profile project involving several collaborators—was published in The American Journal of Psychiatry. The study found that fluoxetine (an SSRI), when administered to juvenile monkeys, persistently upregulated serotonin transporter into young adulthood. This finding underscored the need for practitioners to exercise caution in prescribing SSRIs to young adults, and suggested that further studies in humans are necessary to explore the mechanisms underlying the persistence of these effects. Due to its potential clinical impact, the article was accompanied with an editorial by world-renowned child psychiatrists and behavioral psychologists.

Currently, Stal is a postdoctoral fellow at the NIH working on neuroinflammation and DREADDs (Designer Receptor Exclusively Activated by Designer Drugs) under the mentorship of Victor Pike, Barry Richmond, and Robert Innis. His main project focuses on developing PET radiotracers for the cyclooxygenase (COX) system. The COX system comprises of two primary isoforms, COX-1 and COX-2, which are key enzymes associated with neuroinflammation. Towards this end, Stal screened, evaluated, and developed a primate model of neuroinflammation to validate two PET COX radiotracers for neuroinflammation—11C-PS13 for COX-1 and 11C-MC1 for COX-2. Stal found that while COX-1 is constitutively expressed in major organs, including brain COX-2 is inducible only after inflammation. As such, COX-2 is a biomarker for active inflammation in brain, and 11C-MC1 is the first successful COX-2 PET radiotracer. These findings are particularly important because they suggest that these radiotracers can be used to measure COX-1 and COX-2 in neuroinflammatory disorders as well as to measure delivery to the brain of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) and other potential therapeutic treatments—both would be significant advances in the field of clinical neuroscience. His other project uses PET for visualizing DREADD expression using 11C-Clozapine. DREADDs uses synthetic drugs, and can help modulate circuit activity with pharmacological interventions, and as such has the power to transform the field of clinical neuroscience and how we practice medicine.

In summary, Stal’s scientific pursuits have resulted in three primary discoveries: 1) SSRIs (e.g. Prozac) have persistent effects when administered during adolescence; 2) 11C-PS13 is the first PET radiotracer to successfully image COX-1, which is the major target of NSAIDs.; and 3) 11C-MC1 is the first PET radiotracer to successfully image COX-2, and detects active neuroinflammation. He is the recipient of the American College of Neuropsychopharmacology and Alavi–Mandell Nuclear Medicine Excellence Awards in 2017, International Young Professionals award in Translational Neuroscience in 2016, Henry M. Jackson postdoctoral fellowship for the Advancement of Military Medicine in 2015, and NIH Fellows Award Research Excellence in 2014.