With rates of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) diagnoses up in the United States, its causes are often debated in the media, and Christina Szi ’18 is now working on the cutting edge of research on the disorder. The biology major and neuroscience minor is employed as a postgraduate associate at the Child Study Center — Neuropsychiatric Genetics Program at Yale School of Medicine.
Szi is working in the lab of Assistant Professor Ellen Hoffman, who uses genetics-based techniques to discover the biological pathways that contribute to ASD. Autism is a notoriously complex condition, so Hoffman’s lab utilizes a zebrafish model to perform their genetic analyses.
“Using CRISPR, a genome editing technique, we can generate mutations in genes associated with autism,” said Szi, “then we can observe how the mutants are different via behavior assays, immunohistochemistry assays and high resolution microscopy of the fish brain. Zebrafish are mostly transparent when they are young and developing, making it really easy to conduct live brain imaging to observe neural development.
Szi, a member of Haverford’s Chesick Scholars program, sees this position as an extension of her study in the biology department at Haverford.
“The Hoffman lab is interested in behavioral genetics, much like the research I have done at Haverford,” she said. “My thesis research focused on understanding how a gene called ap2s1 functions in short-term learning using a zebrafish model. I always had an interest in genetics, but I stumbled into — and ended up loving — neuroscience. The research I will be conducting in the Hoffman lab is a perfect blend of my interests.”
In addition to research, Szi assists with upkeep of the zebrafish facility and with general lab prep. She is excited about all that she can learn from the lab work, but is particularly motivated by her personal passion for ASD research.
“I have worked many times with people with ASD both in high school and in college,” said Szi, “which led me to be interested in helping understand more about the disorder on a biological level. Understanding the disorder better can help provide possibilities for helping people with ASD in the future.”
Going forward, Szi hopes that this opportunity will help provide the experience she wants to aid in her application to medical school in the coming few years.
“I hope that this opportunity will allow me to solidify my research, communication and analytical skills that I can carry with me to medical school,” she said.
“Where They’re Headed” is a blog series reporting on the post-collegiate plans of recent Haverford graduates.
Photo by Dex Coen Gilbert ’21.