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Student Spotlight - Tiffany Petrisko

PhD Candidate - Neuroscience

Tiffany Petrisko

Laboratory for Dr. Gregory Konat

I’m originally from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, but mostly grew up in Cary, NC. I graduated cum laude from Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, with a B.S. in Neuroscience and Behavioral Biology. I have long had a passion for science (especially since my 8th grade teacher made us do “The Great Paper Towel Experiment!”) However, what really drove me to research is the fact that my Mom has had Multiple Sclerosis (MS) since I was a little girl. As an only child, I often accompanied her and my Dad on trips to the doctors—many of which were horrible at explaining things in a way I could understand, even as I got older! Many times I would go home trying to figure out what they meant, and over time, I realized how much we still don’t know about MS, or the nervous system in general. I also realized how bad people were at trying to explain things in a non-academic fashion!

My very first research experience began when I was 15 years old and a sophomore in high school. I worked in a developmental genetics lab, and my main project consisted of plucking the middle leg from fruit flies, putting them on microscope slides, imaging and then measuring them. Much of the work there probably wouldn’t be considered glamorous by most, but it really set the foundation for skills I have continued to use throughout my career. While in college at Emory, I changed fields (and animal models) and entered a lab that focused on gene and cell therapies for neurological disorders, mainly Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS). While there, I completed my honors thesis examining the number of motor neurons in healthy and ALS mice in a brain area called the red nucleus.

One of the things I love most about neuroscience is that it truly is an interdisciplinary field! Every system, in some way, has to communicate with the brain, and the brain has to communicate with the rest of our body! Neuroscience allows us to connect with so many different people and utilize a variety of techniques. Some days I’m a behavioral neuroscientist, other days I’m a biochemist and every now and then I’m an immunologist!

Dr. Konat’s lab focuses on the cross talk between the immune and nervous systems, specifically researching how peripheral viral infections alter the brain and lead to exacerbations in a variety of neurological conditions, including seizures (our primary model), stroke, Multiple Sclerosis, Alzheimer’s Disease, and many more.

Seizures are a frequent symptom of the most common neurological disorders, and an additional 8% of the general population will experience at least one seizure during their lifetime. Furthermore, peripheral viral infections are an important comorbid factor in seizures. Our lab previously developed a preclinical murine model in which intraperitoneal injection of a viral mimetic, polyinosinic-polycytidylic acid (PIC) renders the brain hypersusceptible to kainic acid induced seizures. Subsequent studies have shown this hypersusceptibility is due to glutamate dysregulation and neuronal hyperexcitability that results from the initial response of the host to contain the infection in the periphery (called the acute phase response), which generates a variety of inflammatory mediators that are relayed to the brain via the blood stream. When these mediators enter the brain, they cause the brain to alter its activity, becoming hyperexcitable and thus more susceptible to seizures.

My current work focuses on identifying the pertinent agents (which I recently completed in my first author paper!) and underlying cellular mechanisms that result in the brain becoming hyperexcitable and hypersusceptible to seizures in response to PIC injections. Our goal is that by understanding the mechanisms by which peripheral infections alter the brain and cause it to become hyperexcitable and exacerbate symptoms in neurological conditions, we will be able to create a treatment that will allow for the infection to be resolved while preventing the unwanted side effects in the brain.

So far, I have 3 publications, 2 of which are from my time here at WVU! In addition to my work in the lab, I am President of the Neuroscience Graduate Student Organization (NGSO), where I work hard to ensure that our Neuro Ph.D. students are able to have the best program and opportunities possible, and hopefully some fun along the way. This year, we are hoping to recruit people outside of the Neuro Ph.D. program since we have so many graduate students interested in neuroscience or doing neuroscience research who aren’t in our program!

Outside of the lab I love to read, play soccer, travel, and obsessively watch the Pittsburgh Penguins! My family is also incredibly important to me, so I’ll often be talking to my parents (who are still in Cary, North Carolina), my boyfriend (whose getting his own Ph.D. from Georgia Tech), or up in Pittsburgh visiting the rest of my family!  

Petrisko family

MS Walk

Kennywood

Tiffany Petrisko

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