CART Announces our 2022 Sigman Scholars

CART is pleased to announce this year’s Sigman Scholars: Apurva Chaturvedi, Joshua Celballos, and Sereen Wong.  CART established the Sigman Scholars Research Program for UCLA undergraduate students interested in pursuing a career focused on autism spectrum disorder (ASD). The Sigman Scholars Research Program provides a rigorous 8-10 week summer research position for current UCLA undergraduates currently working with or who have plans to work with CART faculty. Fields of potential study include both basic and clinical research, across disciplines including genetics, psychology, psychiatry, neuroscience, and education. This summer research program is supported by the Sigman Scholars Fund at CART.

Apurva Chaturvedi is  a senior at UCLA majoring in psychobiology. Apurva’s goal of working in the field of autism science emerged early in her life. “Coming from a South Asian background where there are no genuine conversations about developmental disabilities, my family and I did not know much about autism when my brother was first diagnosed. In the town where my parents grew up in India, there were no resources about intellectual or developmental disabilities (IDD) and having a disability like autism was heavily stigmatized. Even though I was young, I was determined to find a career where I could educate my family and myself while trying to understand and help my brother.” Under the mentorship of Dr. Shulamite Green, Apurva is a volunteer in Dr. Green’s SCAN Lab where she assists with various aspects of the lab, including assisting with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and psychophysical data and writing individualized sensory reports for participating families enrolled in the lab’s studies.  In her Sigman Scholars project, Apurva studied how GABA relates to sensory regulation, integrating well with the SCAN Lab’s current project on using heart rate and behavioral responses to try to identify and better understand autistic individuals who are sensory regulators. “This is an important topic,” Dr. Green shares, “because our prior research suggests that a subset of children with autism have atypical sensory processing at a neurobiological level but do not show behavioral symptoms of sensory over- responsivity due to top-down regulation. Apurva will be able to address this question through examination of which children with autism show high physiological arousal but low behavioral responsivity and determine whether children with this pattern also show more typical levels of GABA in the thalamus, a brain region important to sensory filtering and regulation.”

Joshua Ceballos is a senior at UCLA majoring in neuroscience and minoring in linguistics. “As a Pilipino American, I have realized that there is a stigma against mental or developmental disorders in my Pilipinx community. This stigma stems from our cultural conditions and the concept of hiya, or shame. Consequently, this negatively impacts the lives of those with these neurodivergencies through misinformation and lack of early diagnosis or appropriate treatment.” Joshua is deeply committed to exploring and better understanding autism spectrum disorder and has been volunteering with Dr. Mirella Dapretto’s IDEA Lab since January 2022.  He has also volunteered with the PEERS for Careers program through the UCLA Center for Autism Research and Treatment, which is focused on education to career transitions for autistic young adults. Dr. Dapretto shares, “Joshua is an outstanding undergraduate student who embodies all of the qualities that I look for in a young research trainee. He is bright, driven, passionate, and unafraid to tackle new obstacles and research questions.” For his Sigman Scholars project, he explored his interest in how language develops differently in autism. By preparing resting-state fMRI data for analysis, which would include performing brain extraction and preprocessing, he worked alongside his  mentor on two datasets – the first comparing infants at typical and elevated likelihood for ASD and a second examining typically developing subjects. He says, “I am excited to support my mentor and explore my own questions about language development – which is known to take an atypical course in ASD – by analyzing the data throughout the summer.”

Sereen Wong is a senior at UCLA majoring in psychobiology and minoring in biomedical research and has always had a strong interest in neurologic conditions and in addressing equity in care. She joined Dr. Rujuta Wilson’s Wilson Motor Lab in late 2020 with an interest in learning more about the role of motor function in different areas of early infant development, such as language and cognition. Dr. Wilson shared, “She has a true scientific curiosity. She is always asking astute questions and when she approached me to apply for the Sigman Scholars program, she had already formulated very interesting hypotheses around the projects she wanted to pursue. These characteristics will take her far in her life and career.”  As part of the Wilson Motor Lab’s high-risk infant study, Sereen observed and coded free play interactions of infants within a controlled environment, analyzing the amount of time and frequency at which participants between 5-20 months of age interacted with different objects in their environments. She currently helps lead this work in the lab and serves as a mentor for the undergraduate team. Sereen says, “Working with the Wilson Motor Lab has been a formative experience in my time here at UCLA, continually inspiring and challenging me to consider different aspects of clinical research and its driving role within applications of medicine, which I plan to pursue two years after graduation.”