My name is Kimmy Halberstadter, and I am a rising senior at Penn. I am majoring in Cognitive Science with a specific concentration in neuroscience, sparked by my deeper interest in exploring the overlap and interactions between biological mechanisms and psychological behavior. In the spring of my junior year at Penn, I began working in Dr. Mariella De Biasi’s pharmacology and neuroscience lab, exploring various effects of substance use on neural development and behavior in a mouse model. Through the STEER program, I have been able to continue this work over the summer and expand both my knowledge of this field and my general skills working in a wet lab.
What is your summer research project?
This summer, my primary project sought to explore the effects of maternal opioid usage on offspring who were exposed to these opioids in utero. With great mentorship from Vanessa Fleites and Dr. De Biasi, I have been able to record and analyze multiple types of data, all lending to the common theme of prenatal exposure to opioids. This research follows these opioid-exposed pups through multiple stages of their development, from their first days, through adolescence, all the way to adulthood.
What are the implications of your research?
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, more than 130 United States residents die every day after overdosing from opioids. Even more, Pennsylvania has the third highest rate of fatal drug overdose, and Philadelphia alone saw over 1,100 fatal drug overdoses in 2018. It is no secret that opioid use in the United States has been on the rise in recent years, and the often-fatal implications of this usage are astounding. In order to properly curb this rising drug usage, it is imperative to understand the roots of drug-initiating behavior and the mechanisms in the brain which either affect or are affected by this usage.
Neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS) resulting from prenatal exposure to certain drugs poses a particular problem to newborn children. This syndrome describes a host of dangerous symptoms suffered by a newborn, and research today is interested in looking at long-term consequences of this exposure. The idea of prenatal exposure to opioids (through maternal usage) is thus of interest in the De Biasi lab, in hopes of better understanding the effects (both short-term and long-term) of opioid use and exposure on later development and behavior so as to inform future efforts to curb this drug usage.
What new skills have you gained through your research?
My work as part of the STEER program has helped me improve my laboratory and leadership skills while also exploring more deeply the environmental implications of my work. Although I have always taken an interest in environmental health, and have more recently explored in-depth environmental toxicology, this environmental perspective had not to date been the primary focus of my work; by combining pharmacological research with lectures and research on public health (and the effects of the environment on this public health), I have been able to widen the scope of my exploration and understanding. It has been particularly special to examine the effects of opioid use not only on the patient-level, but also on the population (and environment) level. The STEER program has enriched my research experience, and my work in the lab specifically has given me the chance to utilize my interests in environmental and public health and provide an additional perspective in the lab.