September 15, 2014

Switching to Neuroscience

Ximena Contreras starts into her second year as PhD student at IST Austria. In the interdisciplinary program, the Mexican student discovered her unexpected passion for neuroscience.

On September 15 2014, Ximena Contreras celebrates two anniversaries: Mexican Independence, and one year as student at IST Austria. Last year, Ximena joined the IST Austria Graduate School as a first-year PhD student and Heinz scholar. Ximena had just finished her bachelor in genomic sciences at the National Autonomous University in Mexico. Now, a year later, she is going to start out on her thesis project in which she’ll investigate mouse models of autism.

When Ximena was looking into where to go for her PhD studies, IST Austria stood out for one reason: the interdisciplinary approach of the graduate school. In her four-year bachelor program, she had focused on computational biology. But for her PhD studies, Ximena was interested in several topics. And so she decided to go for IST Austria: “Most PhD programs make you focus straight away on one field. But at IST Austria, the rotations meant that I could try out projects with different groups and then choose what I would like to work on.” 

Trying out what the Institute has to offer worked for Ximena. Before coming to IST Austria, Ximena had been interested in neuroscience, but had not studied it formally. In lectures, talks and poster sessions at IST Austria, she realized how much she was fascinated by neuroscience – and would like to switch from studying biology with computers to doing biology in the lab. In her first year at IST Austria, she learned all she could about neuroscience in classes and during her rotation projects, which she did in the labs of Jozsef Csicsvari, Simon Hippenmeyer and Gaia Novarino. Ximena is excited about the opportunity she got: “I couldn’t have done this switch without my first year here. I really liked to do neuroscience and it worked out!”

For her thesis project, Ximena is going to join the lab of Gaia Novarino, who investigates autism and epilepsy using mice. Ximena will use a new genome engineering method, called CRISPR, to create mouse models of autism. In these models, she can switch off genes that play a role in autism at specific points during development. In this way, Ximena wants to find out when and why these genes are important in autism.

Graduate school is a different experience for every student. But Ximena has one piece of advice for the new students, who start at the IST Austria Graduate School this September 15: “Just try it and take the leap to find out what you really like to do!”

After spending the final year of her bachelor program in Basel (Switzerland), Austria was not too much of a culture shock for Ximena. What she really misses though, apart from her family and friends, is real, home-cooked Mexican food. So when Ximena goes back to Mexico this Christmas, for the first time in one and half years, she won’t just go to the beach but also enjoy some proper Mexican food. But for Mexican Independence Day this year, Ximena will have to prepare the “chiles en nogada“ herself.