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Introducing graduate student Christina Nona

André Hamer Postgraduate Prize recipient

Student Christina Nona is researching two mechanisms in the brain that affect learning and memory (photo courtesy of NSERC)

Graduate student Christina Nona is fascinated by the human brain—and she’s making a name for herself studying the tiny chemicals in the brain that have an influence on behaviour.

Nona is researching two neural mechanisms found in the brain, kainate and NMDA receptors, and the role they play in learning and memory.

The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) is honouring Nona with an André Hamer Postgraduate Prize. The prize—valued at $10,000—is awarded to the top four candidates in NSERC's master's and doctoral scholarship competitions.

After completing her Bachelor of Science—with a focus in neuroscience and organic chemistry—from the University of Toronto Mississauga in 2012, the 23-year-old is now pursuing a master's degree in the Faculty of Medicine’s Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology under the supervision of Professor José Nobrega.

Tell us about your research in behavioural neurobiology.

My research looks at glutamate, a chemical in the brain that plays an important role in memory formation and learned behaviours.

Here’s how glutamate works: it binds to receptors in the brain, which are made up of smaller proteins called subunits. I’m studying these subunits to see how they impact cells in the nervous system, because that plays a role in determining human behaviour. I’m most interested in exploring how the subunits impact learning and memory.

What kind of impact could this research have for society?

By studying how glutamates work, we can gain a better understanding of their role in neuroplasticity disorders such as addictive behaviours, stress, anxiety and Alzheimer’s, which can help us develop more targeted treatments.

What drew you to this particular area of research?

I find neuroscience fascinating. It’s amazing that a single organ can have such a dramatic influence on our behaviour and ability to function.  Professor Nobrega has played a pivotal role in cultivating my interest in neuroscience, as he is open to new ideas and is always encouraging me to pursue my own research interests. Plus, I love a challenge and the glutamate system certainly provides that.

Why did you pick U of T?

I decided to pursue my graduate studies at U of T because I wanted to expand on the work I did during my undergraduate honour’s thesis in Professor Nobrega’s lab.

U of T provides a rich, diverse research environment thanks to its multiple institutes and centres. This diversity facilitates collaboration, enabling me to conduct integrated research. 

What advice would you give to a student just starting out in this field?

Have confidence in yourself and be persistent.  Students starting out may feel like they don’t have much to contribute, or might get discouraged by setbacks. But don’t give up—you have the potential to make a major contribution to the field, even though it may take time.