PBS Welcomes Marcela Fernandez-Peters

Research Area: Behavioral Neuroscience; Faculty page

Originally from Costa Rica, Marcela Fernandez-Peters was inspired by the great diversity of wildlife that exists there. She developed a desire to learn about the different adaptations and behaviors of native animals. After majoring in Biology at the Universidad de Costa Rica, she began to concentrate on the world of animal communication.

She completed her Master’s degree at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, studying vocal and chemical communication in the Neotropical singing mouse. This species is unique in that it produces a stereotypical advertising call that is audible to the human ear. Most species of rodents produce ultra-sonic vocalizations that we cannot hear.

Fernandez-Peters went on to the Department of Psychology at Cornell University for her Doctorate, studying the neural mechanisms of chemical communication in hamsters with Robert Johnston. This was a significant change for her, coming from a background in biology. She was pursuing a new direction, exploring behavior, and this became a good fit for her. Fernandez-Peters notes, “When I first started, my tendency was to consider the diversity and ecology of animals. Soon I began to focus strictly on their behaviors.”

Her experience with vocal and multi-modal communication in animals allowed her to readily delve into the subject of ultra-sonic vocalizations (USVs). She wanted to know how rodents were using these high-frequency signals to communicate during social interactions. At the time, the biomedical research community was very interested in this type of vocalization in mice and rats. Fernandez-Peters contributed data on the hamster, an animal model used to study aggression and sexual behavior, which was well-received. Although, most of her research has been done on laboratory animals, her background in the diverse tropical species of Costa Rica led her to value a comparative approach in neuroscience, seeking to learn and discover new things about a greater variety of animals.

The significance of USVs is still debatable. Although, they cannot be considered as a form of “rodent language”, they are at least signals that contain acoustic signatures that express social motivation and can vary dynamically with social context. Humans use a variety of characteristics within their vocalizations to express different emotions and to activate our senses and responses. By working with hamsters, scientists have a good opportunity to study these signatures in greater detail.

The hamster is a unique animal model to study because it’s solitary and very aggressive. But it also exhibits a high motivation to socialize with other individuals around them. The hamster can recognize and identify individuals through their odor. They keep track of who their close neighbors and mates are.

During her Postdoc at Washington State University Vancouver, Fernandez-Peters worked in the Hearing and Communication Lab with Christine Portfors. There she gained a great deal of experience in neuroscience techniques, such as electrophysiology and tissue processing. She studied courtship USVs in mice, specifically the processing of them in the primary auditory cortex. Their lab worked with the idea that USVs are salient and natural sounds to animals. They asked questions about how these natural sounds are processed in the auditory system at the level of a single neuron.

Fernandez-Peters has started a new Visiting Assistant Professor position in the UMass Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, Behavioral Neuroscience Program. Her interest in communication between animals will be embraced as she works alongside Luke Remage-Healey, studying both the production and perception of vocalizations in the zebra finch. She will be exploring the neural basis of communication and how social context modulates communication signals.

Fernandez-Peters states, “The study of communication between mammals has not advanced as much as the study of songbirds. The neural system used in songbird communication contains very distinct characteristics and functionality. It will be great to work with an animal model that has been more successful in answering questions about vocal communication. The best evidence we have that pairs natural behaviors with neuroendocrinology has come from the study of birdsong. Perhaps I will return to the study of mammalian communication with new questions to ask, based on what I have learned while working with songbirds.”

During her Doctoral studies, she gained some experience working with hormones and the effects of steroids in the production of USVs in hamsters. Further, she examined the rapid effects of estrogens on the brain which resembles some of the work of professors in the Behavioral Neuroscience Program. The modulatory effects of estrogen are something Fernandez-Peters finds fascinating. She hopes to see how these effects modulate communication in the zebra finch and how that will interact with the activation of other parts of the brain that are important for social behavior. The opportunity to gain hands-on experience working with the zebra finches will be new and exciting for her.

Fernandez-Peters has followed Remage-Healey’s work for some time and they share many research interests. There are also many people at UMass that are interested in neuroendocrinology and behavior. “It will be great to learn from this community. It’s much more fun and productive when many people have the same interests. We will be able to debate and stimulate our brains, generating new ideas through our exchanges,” she says.

Her position at UMass was inspired by a similar position being done in the Biology Department. They organize a fellowship that is a great fit for someone who still needs postdoctoral experience and additional teaching experience. Her position differs from a traditional Assistant Professor role in that she will be working in the already established Healey Lab, with Remage-Healey as her advisor.

She is very thankful for the opportunity to include teaching seminars in her experience at UMass. Her fall seminar, Psych 391BA: Hormonal Influences on Human Behavior, is related to her own research interests. She explains, “I’m having a lot of fun with it. The focus of the seminar will be to examine the studies that have been done in humans and how animal research compares to findings in human research. We will be delving into how hormones modulate human behavior such as aggression, trust, altruism, love, and sexual orientation. We are blending aspects of social psychology, behavioral endocrinology, and behavioral neuroscience.”

Outside of the University, Fernandez-Peters enjoys theater and performing arts. While she was attending Cornell, she acted in plays performed in Spanish. She hopes to learn more about the UMass Latino Community and be involved. She is also a big admirer of the Native American culture. Before starting her PhD studies, Fernandez-Peters coordinated a Summer Research Experience Program for Native American and Pacific Islander undergraduate students in Costa Rica with the Organization for Tropical Studies. Living in the more rural environment of Western Massachusetts is also something she is looking forward to.