35: Alexia Williams

Department

Psychology

Program and year of study

PhD (Biological Psychology), 3rd year

Previous degrees and colleges

BS Biology, UMass 

Where did you grow up?

Western Massachusetts

Where do you live now?

Davis

What's your favorite spot in Davis?

Taqueria Davis. Best burritos in town.

How do you relax?

I’m big on gaming. I find that video game-induced stress is a good distraction from real life stress. I also bake (sometimes) and run (occasionally).

What was the last book you read for pleasure?

1Q84 by Haruki Murakami—10/10 would recommend

What TV show are you currently binge-watching?

It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia and The Americans 

Research interests

A major symptom of depression is no longer finding pleasure in activities you once enjoyed. I’m really interested in understanding which specific microcircuits in our brain are responsible for our motivation to seek out the things we want and how those microcircuits are changed (on both molecular and genetic levels) following stressful experiences or in psychiatric disorders such as depression and anxiety.

Dissertation title or topic

It’ll likely be focused on mapping and manipulating microcircuits within our brain’s reward system in order to understand their influence on our motivation to seek out sociality.  

Please share a surprising or noteworthy fact or finding from your research

Everyone knows of oxytocin as this pro-social “love hormone”. Research from our lab suggests that this may not actually be the case. This is a vast oversimplification, but it seems that the effects of oxytocin on behavior are context-specific (meaning that more oxytocin in a negative environment can negatively influence behavior, as opposed to bettering it). For example, in rodents we see this as oxytocin inducing social withdrawal as opposed to social approach following stressful experiences. We’re now trying to dive more in to the molecular aspects of how and why this happens.

Which professor or class inspired you to pursue graduate studies?

Believe it or not, cell biology. I was really excited by signaling cascades. Then I moved on to neurobiology and got really interested in this idea that there are distinct groups of cells communicating with each other to control distinct aspects of so much of what we do. 

Which scholarly text do you wish you had written? Why?

On the Origin of Species. It’s the foundation of everything. 

Which other researchers at UC Davis are doing work that particularly interests you?

Drew Fox's research interests are similar to mine (decision-making, social anxiety). He is using some pretty innovative techniques (high throughput sequencing, DREADDs) to get at answering questions about affective style that I think are super important. The type of work he is doing is translational in that the information we gather from it could help in the development of interventions that will benefit those with anxiety disorders.

Kristina Horback in Animal Science is doing some really cool stuff looking at personality and affective states in animals. Animal welfare is so important, and if there are ways that we can identify distinct personality traits and use that to understand individual differences in coping strategies, then ideally, we can customize their environments and better living situations (in the lab but also in other contexts- farms for example).

What’s the best thing about being a grad student?

Setting your own schedule.

What's the worst?

Feeling guilty about the schedule you set for yourself.

If you weren't a grad student, what would you be doing?

I am really in to digital art and I like to think that in another world I’m designing and animating characters for video games. 

Finally, please ask yourself a question

What’s one thing you haven’t done that you should do?

Learn Spanish. I’m mostly Puerto Rican and my Spanish is barely intermediate. It’s pretty embarrassing. 

 

—January 2018

 

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