Hello everyone! My name is Camila Vallebona. I come from a country where “neuroscience” and “research” are meaningless words – words that elicit confusion and attract weird looks. I was born and raised in Buenos Aires, Argentina, a beautiful country in South America with the most fun people and the nicest places to explore from big cities to rivers and mountains. My mind jumped from one career idea to another with extreme ease. Everything sounded appealing but nothing sounded perfect. Veterinarian, marine biologist, professional tennis player, writer, journalist, boxer, engineer, bioengineer, paramedic, doctor, psychologist, psychiatrist, occupational therapist, physical therapist, among others. My ideas changed throughout childhood and adolescence and even early adulthood – where time places me now. As I grew older, my heart kept loving our culture, our people, our music, our food, our places, but my mind started disliking the economy and the lack of professional opportunities. When I was starting high school, my father offered me the chance to study abroad. Without a single doubt or second thought, I refused. Leaving my family? Going somewhere else to study… alone? Was any career worth that sacrifice? My closed mind started to change during the summer of 2018, where I took a three-week English course at the University of Boston. I suddenly realized traveling offered the priceless opportunity of meeting very different people, discovering new places, learning new cultures and languages. The idea of doing college abroad sounded less crazy. My mind finally embraced the idea in summer 2019 at the University of California at Berkeley when I took Introduction to Neuroscience. I didn’t know what neuroscience really meant, but it sounded fun. That summer I found my passion. Yet, my heart was convinced only after my mother told me: “As you get older, what you regret the most is what you didn’t try.”
After a lengthy application process to enter an education system that I was only starting to understand, (while all my friends simply signed up to attend the most popular high-level public college at Buenos Aires,) I was accepted at UNC Chapel Hill. Covid-19 forced my first year to be virtual – as it happened to all of us – and made it harder to understand the system as well as to meet people. Yet, in my second semester at UNC, I met the person who would become my first mentor, Dr. Claudio Battaglini, a Brazilian professor and principal investigator in the department of Exercise and Sports Science. Despite barely knowing me, he offered that I join an ongoing research project that evaluated changes in quality of life and fitness levels in a small population with schizophrenia. I became one of the group leaders that would offer the weekly virtual walking sessions and interact with the participants. Dr. Claudio gave meaning, emotion, purpose, and face to the word “research.” I finally decided on my career path, still ignoring how many opportunities really existed to make a living as a scientist.
I volunteered with Dr. Battaglini and Dr. David Penn as a group leader in that study, the Physical Activity Can Enhance Life (or PACE Life) study for about a year. Working with participants, earning their trust, and watching them improve their moods and fitness was one of the most satisfying experiences I ever had. The missing component was applying my knowledge on neuroscience to help the participants that I met. A big challenge in my sophomore year changed my priorities and postponed all my plans when I suffered a back injury. After a semester that felt like years, I was not completely recovered, but coped well enough to reconnect with my passion: research. My athletic passion for boxing, however, was inevitably postponed. I entered into the lab of Dr. Barbara Fredrickson and joined the study Love as Concordance of Jieni Zhou, one of her graduate students. Jieni trained us on a scale to rate positive resonance, defined as a synched moment of shared positive emotions, in videorecorded conversations of couples. While she did not share her hypotheses to avoid biasing our results, working with her taught me skills I still use today. The key points I learned were: (a) the importance of asking questions in job interviews, (b) how to be resilient and honest about any challenges of my personal life with my superior (such as my back pain), (c) how to be transparent and professional with my peers, (d) how to discuss professional discrepancies and trouble shoot situations, but most importantly, (e) I learned that my passion relies heavily on neuroscience, not on social psychology. Discovering what paths you do not want to take is the beginning of finding the tasks that you want to perform every day – that dream job.
The next step was finding a neuroscience lab that would give me experience with new tools, equipment, and treating human subjects. At the end of my junior year, I had the best of luck and arrived at the UNC Neurocognition and Imaging Research Lab. The principal investigator is Dr. Aysenil Belger, and the team is an amazing group of high achievers, several of which are international students or second-generation immigrants. When I joined, the main focus was the Psychosis-Risk Outcomes Networks (ProNET), a longitudinal study with 27 sites around the world that collect different types of data (blood markers, fMRI, EEG, etc.) in individuals at high-risk for psychosis, with the purpose of finding a combination of biomarkers that accurately predict psychosis. This study is carried out by the global effort of all the sites and the outstanding job of the personnel at UNC with impressive ideas and trouble-shooting skills. Here, I was trained on the basics of EEG data analysis and got my EEG Technician certification to run the paradigm on the participants, ages roughly from 15 to 25. Furthermore, I conducted a literature review for a 395 class, research for credit, on the complex stress circuitry, the comparison of stress methodology, and a proposal to study the alterations of distinct sections of the stress circuitry in individuals with anxiety disorders using EEGs. My knowledge of stress circuits led to an interest in the cardiological measures of stress, which would be handy for the new study of the lab: the Pathways of Adolescent Success Study (PASS). On summer 2023, I collaborated to jumpstart the PASS study, a 5-year study that focuses on how the neural pathways of individuals with anxiety can make them prone to substance abuse.
I am currently working on two projects, in addition to helping with the PASS and the ProNET study: my honors thesis with Dr. Aysenil Belger and my new Gil Internship at the Early Brain Development Study with Dr. Gilmore and Dr. Stephens. Both are projects based on existing data from longitudinal studies. The honors thesis will focus on (a) finding the brain networks engaged in individual symptoms of psychosis using functional magnetic resonance imaging and (b) testing the predictive value of fMRIs at anticipating future symptoms. My Gil Internship focuses on (a) performing the quality control of the structural magnetic resonance imaging of the 8-year-old participants, and (b) starting a project to find correlations between changes in subcortical structures’ volumes and changes in anxiety from 4 to 8 years of age. The Early Brain Development Study is a longitudinal study that recruited pregnant women from 2004 to 2014, a subset of which were diagnosed with psychopathologies, and followed the newborn up to adolescence by performing an array of behavioral assessments, neuroimaging (including diffusion tensor, structural and functional MRI) and cognitive assessments. The purpose is to find early biomarkers of neuropathologies, such as anxiety, depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, among others. So far, this internship has been an amazing opportunity (a) to get trained in a different type of image analysis, (b) to strengthen my knowledge on neuroanatomy, (c) to improve my decision-making skills for the quality control of the images, (d) to break down projects into realistic timeframes, (e) to discover the intricacies of longitudinal studies, (f) to help me reflect on whether I’d like to run longitudinal studies in the future, and most importantly, (g) to discover a different research area and a different angle on how to help people. In addition, I like feeling useful to this team that has been working on this project for two decades, as I enjoy providing a new set of eyes to ask important research questions.
Finally, I am not only thrilled to continue with my projects – and hoping days had more than 24 hours – but I am also grateful for the support of the Gil internship team. Dr. Steve Buzinski and Emily Dolegowski are helping us build our professional path. We are working on improving our resources at hand to present ourselves as better candidates for future positions, including improving our resumes, our presentation and oratory skills, our interviewing skills, our problem-solving skills, among others. A vital component of the learning process through this internship is listening to the other interns’ experiences and challenges. Brainstorming solutions and hearing each other is one of my favorite aspects of the internship. I am grateful that the lecture-portion of this internship is devoted to professional development and is so application-oriented. I hope to learn even more about making a living as a researcher.
While I still do not have my career plans clear and polished, I am finding my way to the opportunities that are closer to “success.” The unlimited number of opportunities can be confusing, but I put all my efforts into every step of the way, hoping I am heading toward a good direction. “Right” or “wrong” directions do not exist at this point, they simply take you through different paths. A special poem by Robert Frost illustrates my dilemma: The Road Not Taken
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
Thank you for reading!