Student Spotlight: Roberto Cofresi

By Rose Nguyen

Roberto Cofresi, a 4th year biochemistry major originally from Puerto Rico, talks to us about life, research, and Synapse.

Q: Can you tell us about Synapse? What students do you guys reach out to and what is the structure of your organization like?

 A: Fundamentally, we are trying to provide a community for anyone who is interested in brains, behavior, or neuroscience. Regardless of major, we welcome anyone to our meetings. We don’t expect any kind of neuroscience background; just want to provide a time and space for people to geek out. We bring a lot of people on campus to give informal talks, usually faculty, but we also reach out to post-docs and grad students.

Our peer-led discussions [consists of] us talking about cool things in neuroscience. All of us in the “leadership” team have different backgrounds and interests in neuroscience so we all have different angles – so you still get breadth, even though you are getting depth in a discussion.

We also host URNJ, which is a journal club. Someone presents the paper (usually members volunteer to present something that they think is cool or that they need to read for a particular reason). We think critically about it, comment, and debate the merits for it.  The aims of these things are to highlight and research what is going on in our campus and in the field. We find that through peer-led discussions, it a lot easier for members to gain confidence, ask each other things, and comment on topics if it is just us rather than having a faculty member present it. Plus it’s fun to just share with people who you assume are on your level. The aim is to make members feel comfortable both reading and accessing literature as well as thinking critically – just because it is published does not mean it is true. Given the nature of our classes, people take things from the textbook as fact, and that’s not how science is. As an added bonus, you learn how to discuss papers.

Event-wise, we do all sorts of things. We did a “flavor-tripping”, which is playing with miracle fruit (clarification: the fruit miraculin can be used to coat the tongue and change acidic flavors into sweet ones). We’ve done meet-and-greets with the faculty where we all get together and mingle and they basically share their life histories with us: how they got into their fields and the niche they are in. We also do a trivia competition that we started two years ago, called the NeurOlympics.

Q: When did you join Synapse? What effect did it have on you and why would you recommend others to join?

 A: I was a CAP student at UT Arlington and I transferred here in the summer of 2010. I was looking for a community to join, which is difficult for anyone to find at a large university. I started becoming involved with Synapse that fall. I was looking for a community and to make friends that were as, if not geekier, than me and Synapse just became a mainstay for me. I would say that, and I think it holds for people who regularly come to the meetings that you learn a lot more neuroscience by doing this than by just taking your classes. There is something about independent inquiry that facilitates greater learning. It basically has done that because I’m not a biology major but I would say that I know quite a bit.

When I became more heavily involved in Synapse, having to be more involved as a leader helped me tremendously in skills that extends outside of science, I became more assertive, more self-confident, and it was the result of having to be Roberto from Synapse, having to organize things. It was a good experience and I recommend it to people who regularly attend.

Q: What are your plans after graduation? What were your favorite experiences as an undergraduate student? What advice to you have for people pursuing a similar path?

A: After graduation, I intended to go straight into graduate school, so I’m taking a six-month break, during which I plan on working on the multiple projects in my lab (in pharmacology with Dr. Rueben Gonzales). If I don’t go straight to graduate school I am, thinking about doing a post-bac at an NIH campus. My intent is to stay in academia, particularly basic science, and I am probably going to stay in pharmacology and I want to get a PhD in behavioral neuroscience or pharmacology, because [those areas are] where most of my interests are.

My favorite experience as an undergrad is working in a lab. I basically transferred in and had an instant home, just from the way the grad students and PI handled me and how willing they were to let me do things, and I did everything imaginable. It was also [important to me] having a mentor, Dr. Regina Mangieri, around to just teach me things – our mentor relationship was flexible; she was like a friend to some extent.

I recommend it to all undergrads, find a lab on campus that is willing to let you help, whether you get funded or paid, or if you are doing it for fun. It can enhance your experience. My other piece of advice is to find a mentor who is willing to connect with you and develop [your skills]. Find a grad student, a professor, a post-doc – all the fears and insecurities that I have as an undergraduate, as someone who wants to pursue academia… these have been ameliorated to some extent by my mentor. We talk about her grad experience, how her undergrad went, how she handles work/life balance today. All of these stories, [a mentor] can share. It’s hard to think of them as people if you work with them as an underling, but having a real relationship with them is awesome. Whether it is someone to talk about a particular class or to discuss ideas more broadly. Get a mentor, geek out, do research, don’t worry about grades that much even if you are a pre-med.

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