Sikoya Ashburn

Sikoya Ashburn
NIH Blueprint Diversity Specialized Predoctoral to Postdoctoral Advancement in Neuroscience (D-SPAN) F99/K00 Award

"...one of my passions is to share science with the younger generation, particularly within underrepresented communities, I was excited to see that there was an infrastructure [at Georgetown] to support this."

About Sikoya

Sikoya is a 6th-year in the Interdisciplinary Program in Neuroscience and is completing her degree in the Center for the Study of Learning, under the direction of Dr. Guinevere Eden.  She is from Newport News, Virginia and double majored in Neuroscience and Spanish at Duke University. Before matriculating into the IPN, she worked as a research assistant (RA) with Dr. Xiong Jiang and as a scanning RA at the Center for Functional and Molecular Imaging under the direction of Dr. John VanMeter at Georgetown University to gain more experience with cognitive neuroimaging research methods.

Why Georgetown University for your Ph.D.?

Neuroscience is a complex field that studies the brain various levels including molecular, behavioral, and cognitive research questions. Although I knew that I would predominately perform research at the cognitive level, I wanted to enter a Ph.D. program in which I could gain knowledge on the full breadth of the neuroscience field. The Interdisciplinary Program in Neuroscience offered this in the form of a broad but in-depth curriculum during the first year of training that covered a comprehensive representation of the field. The program also offered first-year rotations to delve more into specific research questions before selecting your thesis lab. And lastly, the program was very appealing since GU has a research-dedicated fMRI scanner, which is not common, and cognitive research labs in which I could envision completing my Ph.D.  

I also wanted a program with a supportive environment and access to professional development opportunities, particularly those related to teaching. The strong community within the IPN program was easily notable from the student involvement during interviews. Unlike other programs, the students were invested in highlighting positive aspects of the curriculum, the program, as well as the faculty. Also, there were many outreach and teaching opportunities.  Since one of my passions is to share science with the younger generation, particularly within underrepresented communities, I was excited to see that there was an infrastructure in place to support this.  Also, GU has a plethora of teaching opportunities from running neuroanatomy labs to directing undergraduate courses. Additionally, GU offered me teaching support through the Apprenticeship in Teaching certificate program which provides training toward becoming a skilled instructor who is knowledgeable in pedagogical practices.  All of these were factors that I looked forward to participating in as a graduate student in the IPN.

What is your research focus? What sparked your interest in it?

The cerebellum, a brain structure that sits under the cortex, has been traditionally thought of as a region constrained to motor function. However, recent neuroimaging studies suggest that the cerebellum may be involved in a wide range of other cognitive functions.  Thus, my research uses functional MRI to test the cerebellum’s involvement in higher cognitive functions, particularly within reading and its corresponding learning disability, dyslexia. Additionally, I extend this research into children with co-morbid reading and math disabilities during both reading and math tasks. Although the majority of my research has been done in a pediatric population, I also perform cross-sectional analyses to assess potential functional differences of the cerebellum when comparing children and adults who are typical readers.

My interest in science and research actually started with a 7th-grade science fair project comparing adults and children in their ability to solve a word puzzle. Please note, this project was very basic, but it led to a stream of questions of how we learn, how we process and manipulate language while reading, what happens when the system is disrupted, and how can we ‘fix’ or ‘enhance’ the learning process. During my time as a scanning research assistant for the Center for Functional and Molecular Imaging at GU, these questions shifted towards how the cerebellum may be involved in learning as well as in these processes of higher cognitive functions. Overall, I hope to continue using neuroimaging methods to elucidate the cerebellum’s involvement in other developmental and learning disorders, which may then be used to improve current interventions.

What is the name of the award you received? Please provide a brief description about the award

The formal name for the is the NIH Blueprint Diversity Specialized Predoctoral to Postdoctoral Advancement in Neuroscience (D-SPAN) F99/K00 Award. This provides funding for the final year of my Ph.D. and up to four years of post-doctoral research.

What does this award mean to you?

It means (a bit of) scientific freedom.  With support from this award, I can choose a post-doctoral fellowship that most aligns with my research interests and that (if leveraged properly) can put me in a strategic position to apply for the K99/R00, which would provide funding towards starting my own lab after completing my post-doctoral fellowship.  It also means that I will not have to worry about whether the post-doc lab of interest has funding to support me. There are frequently great mentors and labs that cannot accept a post-doc simply because the position is not included in his or her budget.  But, with this award, I can bypass that limitation. So, this award has the potential to lead to research opportunities that would not have been an option otherwise.

Do you have tips for other students interested in applying for this award or other external awards?

The first tip that I would offer is to get input on your application early.  Reach out to previous recipients of the award.  We are (at a minimum I am) willing to give feedback on applications. I would also recommend having a scientist outside of your primary field of study read the application.  The reviewers assigned to your application may not be directly in your scientific niche.

The second tip is to use the training plan to your advantage.  The training plan may seem daunting, but I would encourage you to think of it as an opportunity to think of creative ways to enhance your predoctoral training.  This grant will provide funds to cover (almost) whatever training you can think of. Which techniques should you learn? Is there a particular analysis that you may need assistance with? Is there another lab that is known for their mastery of a particular skill that you plan to use towards your thesis research? Dream big (but practical) and have letters from faculty to support those dreams. 

If you could meet one scientist, who would you want to meet and why?

I would want to meet a Mayan scientist. That may seem like an odd request but think about it.  The Mayans were known for scientific advancements that were centuries ahead of other parts of the world, such as the creation and use of rubber. They created the notorious Mayan calendar which gave some people a fright in 2012. Mayans were the first known society to use the concept of zero. They were well-skilled in astronomy, architecture, agricultural skills, and engineering. I am curious as to how these advances came about when no other (known) parts of the world had them.