PHILADELPHIA- Sara Aton, PhD, Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Neuroscience at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, was awarded a grant from the L'Oréal USA For Women in Science Program. Laurent Attal, President and CEO, L'Oréal USA, and Dr. Ralph J. Cicerone, President, National Academy of Sciences, honored Dr. Aton, along with the other five 2008 recipients at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. This prestigious fellowship provides support to postdoctoral women scientists who are undertaking cutting-edge research with practical applications.
"I was surprised and delighted when I found out that I had been selected for the L'Oreal award," said Dr. Aton. "The work of this year's fellows has real potential to change our world. So to say I am honored to have been placed among them is an understatement."
The L'Oréal USA Fellowship program started in 2003 and each year identifies and rewards five female, postdoctoral researchers with grants. Starting in 2007, the grants doubled in value from $20,000 to $40,000.
Dr. Aton will use this grant to study a key biological component underlying learning and memory called synaptic plasticity. She studies the role of connections between nerve cells in consolidating ocular dominance plasticity during sleep by recording large groups of individual neurons in freely sleeping animals. Ocular dominance plasticity is a term that describes the remodeling of nerve synapses that occurs in the visual cortex of the brain in response to changes in visual input from both eyes.
"Because sleep seems to also be involved in learning and memory consolidation, we use ocular dominance plasticity as a system to probe the general mechanisms by which sleep may facilitate learning and memory," she explains.
This will be the first study attempting such large-scale recording of neurons within a synaptically-integrated network during plastic remodeling. Dr. Aton adds, "The L'Oreal For Women in Science Fellowship will allow me to purchase the equipment required to address this issue."
The results of this research will lay the foundation for continued study of how sleep affects cognition and how sleep deprivation adversely affects neural function. "The data we will be able to collect from this experiment may lead to major breakthroughs in our understanding of what goes on in the brain during sleep, how it differs from activity during waking, and what these differences mean for brain function," comments Dr. Aton.
This research may reveal implications and possible solutions for those who are confined to restricted sleep schedules. The long-term goal of Dr. Aton's research is to clarify how sleep contributes to learning and memory.
Dr. Aton received her B.S. in Biopsychology & Cognitive Science from the University of Michigan and her Ph.D. in Neuroscience from Washington University in St. Louis in 2006. She was a recipient of the National Science Foundation graduate research fellowship, National Research Service Awards from the National Institute of Mental Health and National Eye Institute, and a postdoctoral fellowship from the National Sleep Foundation.
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