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PhD candidate studies mental illness progression and alcoholism

Jenya Kolpakova reflects on starting scientific career while raising teenage daughter

By Kylee Denesha

UMass Medical School Communications

April 26, 2021

Jenya Kolpakova, a PhD candidate in the neuroscience program of the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences, came to the United States from Ukraine when she was 15. At the time, she was not sure what her future held after high school. She got married and had her daughter when she was 20, starting college two years later.

“I had a very nontraditional path,” Kolpakova said. “Moving across the world and starting a new life was a big transition, but an overall positive experience. Now, my daughter is 15, the same age I was I came to the U.S. It has been an interesting journey pursuing my dreams as a scientist while being a mother.”

Kolpakova’s interest in the brain and behavior started as a teen when she watched the film, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” She said she was fascinated by the progression of mental illness and how it can be treated and mistreated. Through her psychology classes, she was able to gain a better understanding of how neurological diseases worked and what could be done to prevent them.

“I went on to study psychology at the University of Central Florida, then received my master’s in molecular biology and microbiology there too. I was, and still am, drawn to the ways neurons work and how they communicate,” she said.

Studying in the lab of Gilles Martin, PhD, assistant professor of neurobiology, Kolpakova focuses on the effects of binge alcohol drinking on behavior by examining neuron networks. By using a variety of electrophysiological and optogenetic techniques in mice, her project analyzes the ways brains change when exposed to alcohol and how that activity can be controlled.

“Alcohol addiction is characterized by the hijacking of the brain’s natural reward system. However, it is unknown how the brain incorporates incoming inputs from cognitive and emotional centers to give rise to behavior,” she said.

Kolpakova is interested in science consulting, working at the intersection of research and business. She said she hopes to be a part of the work that influences the pharmaceutical industry’s process of making therapies and drugs for those living with substance use disorders.

“I could be the person who facilitates the connection, who communicates about science in the business world and judges whether the actual therapy proposed is good quality or not,” she said.

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