Winter 2019 Newsletter | New Faces

Bruna Martins Read more

Evelyn Mercado Read more

Interview with New Assistant Professor Bruna Martins

bruna martinsWhat are some of the steps you took in life or influences that brought you to your current area of research?

I started my research career as an undergraduate research assistant, running fMRI localizers to help neurosurgeons plan routes for tumor removal for patients with brain cancer through use of fMRI and white matter fiber mapping (via Diffusion Tensor Imaging/Diffusion spectrum imaging methods). While we could categorize the anatomy of the brain to minimize damage to language, motor, and visual networks to maximize older adults’ recovery post-tumor surgery, but a lot of flexibility in thought and coping behaviors were not captured fully by our measurements.

Before their MRI sessions, patients divulged their histories, sharing how they were diagnosed, the reactions they had, and how their lives had changed- which varied widely. Some reported cancer as a surmountable challenge that led to them feeling empowered, while others stated that they felt hopeless and disengaging from the activities that used to be most meaningful to them. I became enamored with understanding how some older adults are so emotionally resilient and “bulletproof,” while others really struggle to recover from stress.

This curiosity drove me to merged my interests in neuroimaging and behavioral outcomes, to understand the neural mechanisms of emotion regulation in later-life. My work aims to uncover what brain circuits are protective for older adults, and I remain driven to learn from both brain and behavior- finding out which strategies older people use to recover from stress, and the brain circuitry that supports this later-life adaptive emotion regulation and positive outcomes. 

What are some short-term goals for your research this year?

My short term research goal is to start collecting new lab data at UMass, I am excited to be launching many exciting projects this semester and really getting my feet wet as a new assistant professor with a big splash!

We are investigating the impact and difficulty of regulating stress in-the-moment (reactive) versus regulating emotion when anticipating distress in the future (proactive). We sometimes have to flexibly adapt to situations that catch us off guard, while other times we know that a stressful event is coming up (for instance, a big cross-country move, giving an important presentation, having a root canal done) and can calm ourselves and do things to manage this stress in advance, but most studies to date do not explore how time impacts regulation. I am interested in whether there are age differences in benefits from anticipatory emotion regulation, and clarifying how cognitive abilities and frontal brain circuits influence emotional expectancies and preparation to regulate. We plan to start piloting for the study this semester.

I am also excited to be collaborating with two different labs on two novel fMRI studies— in collaboration with Dr. Bekki Spencer’s lab, we are investigating the role of sleep and emotion regulation during negative emotional experiences on memory for these stressful events later on. We are also launching a pilot study with Dr. Becky Ready funded by the Human Magnetic Resource Center (hMRC) investigating changes in brain circuits during emotional processing in patients with mild cognitive impairment. Overall, it is an exciting series of projects launching this spring, we are excited to discover more about the brain mechanisms supporting emotional resilience versus emotional dysfunction in later-life.

What are some big questions in science you would like to see answered?

I think the neuroimaging community has done a good job describing where the brain responds to different emotional and cognitive contexts across age, but one big question that I hope science can answer is why the aging brain regulates emotion differently and more effectively than in younger adults. Differentiating whether the mechanisms are structural or strategic will help us apply this knowledge to interventions. Another huge question in science is whether laboratory findings apply in daily life, and I think mixed methods studies of both fMRI and ambulatory data collection will help answer whether these important fMRI findings are predictive of resilience in the real world. It is one thing to ask people to report on their daily lives, and another to measure their physiology during real life stressors and understand how this maps onto the controlled stressors we measure in the scanner.

What was appealing about coming to work at UMass?

Working at UMass is unique because the scientific community is truly integrated, and collaborations across labs and schools happen so organically. Researchers enjoy talking to one another, mentoring at every level of the academic tree, and work together rather than in competition.  The biggest appeal for me about UMass is working an environment that’s fun and stimulating to do research in, and where everyone is working together for collective understanding and success. Even before coming to UMass, I exchanged ideas with other faculty, and those conversations driven by genuine curiosity have grown into pilot projects and grants in preparation. It’s such an amazing thing to work across biology, nursing, psychology, neuroscience and more, and contribute to projects that are greater than the sum of its parts. The diversity of thought, mutually beneficial areas of expertise, and collaborative spirit of UMass is my favorite part of working here. 


Interview with New Assistant Professor Evelyn Mercado

evelyn mercadoWhat are some of the steps you took in life or influences that brought
you to your current area of research?

Well, the first step was probably to attend college. I was the first person in my family to have the opportunity to pursue higher education. During my undergraduate tenure I took the time to seek different research experiences, which helped me solidify what area of research I was truly passionate about. I worked in a social psychology lab looking at perceptions of the environment in school aged children, then I switched to a behavioral neuroscience lab where I convinced the PI to allow me to run experiments on adolescent rodents rather than adults, to look at the developmental consequences of drugs of abuse like Ketamine and Morphine. After those two experiences I came to the realization that I wanted to a) work with humans, and b) study individuals in the context of their relationships.  In my graduate work I was able to refine the specific relationship processes I was interested in, and during my postdoc at UCLA I had the opportunity to apply a cultural lens to my work.

What are some short-term goals for your research this year?

During this year I’d like to initiate a pilot study on parent-adolescent dyads from ethnically diverse populations in the surrounding community and explore the role of interpersonal emotion dynamics on mental health disparities during adolescence. A short-term goal for my research is to disentangle the associations between coregulation of affect and coregulation of physiology. Studies examining intraindividual associations between stress physiology and perceived stress or momentary affect report small or no associations, whether this applies to interindividual associations has not been examined as extensively.

What are some big questions in science you would like to see answered?

I’m not sure it’s a big question per se,  but I would like to see diversity science flourish and greater representation of racial and ethnically diverse communities in psychological research. I was recently a part of a symposium titled “Ecologically Valid Stressors and Neuroendocrine Activity in the Everyday Lives of Diverse Adolescents” at a more biologically oriented conference (ISPNE). It was really the first time a symposium of that nature was accepted at this conference, and I hope there are more to come in the future. 

What was appealing about coming to work at UMass?

The prospect of working with such supportive colleagues! I was continuously impressed during my interview by how cohesive and close the department was. Additionally, as a graduate of a public university I always envisioned teaching at a similar institution and mentoring other first-generation college students from immigrant families like myself. The research and teaching resources faculty have access to, was also something that drew me to UMass.