Sigman Scholars program provides unique experience for undergraduates to work with CART faculty

Kristal Orta Martinez and Sapna Ramappa

Undergraduate students at UCLA are offered a unique opportunity to participate in research with CART faculty. The CART Sigman Scholars Summer Program for UCLA undergraduate students is an 8-10 week summer research position in CART in which selected students are paired up with a CART faculty member and their lab. This program is designed to provide a rigorous, in-depth research experience for those interested in pursuing a career focused in autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Students may work in the fields of basic and clinical research ranging from genetics, psychology, psychiatry, neuroscience, and education. CART has awarded Kristal Orta Martinez and Sapna Ramappa as the 2020 CART Sigman Scholars.

Kristal Orta Martinez is a first-generation Latina born and raised in South Los Angeles. She grew up as the eldest sister of two autistic siblings and her life experience has shaped her career and research interests while at UCLA. Ms. Orta Martinez says, “I have recognized many disparities regarding education, healthcare and services for the Latinx autistic community. The encounters I have faced alongside my autistic siblings have ignited a research passion of mine to develop interventions and therapies targeted at the Latinx autism community.” She is a rising fourth year undergraduate student majoring in History and minoring in Disability Studies at UCLA. She was a part of the UCLA Biomedical Sciences Enrichment Program (BISEP) at the end of her first year, which is a two-year federally funded research program that prepares undergraduate students to apply to the best graduate programs in the country. This experience has prepared her for scientific research at UCLA and her plan to pursue a Master of Education in Special Education and a PhD in Clinical Psychology. Ms. Orta Martinez joined Dr. Rujuta Wilson’s Motor Phenotyping Lab after the completion of the BISEP program and has been working with Dr. Wilson for the past three years. As a CART Sigman Scholar, Ms. Orta Martinez will continue to work under the mentorship of Dr. Wilson on a project to better understand motor trajectories in infants at risk for neurodevelopmental disorders.

Sapna Ramappa is an incoming third year undergraduate student at UCLA majoring in Human Biology and Society and minoring in Public Health. “From a young age, I was curious about neuro-atypicalities as I heard the words ‘special’ and ‘mentally disabled’ thrown around carelessly to refer to my family friend who I soon found out had autism. After recognizing the rampant stigmatization of autism in my own community, I sought to understand what autism is” says Ms. Ramappa. Prior to entering UCLA, she worked with various after-school programs and workshops for youth with developmental disorders. She says, “These moments have encouraged me to learn more about the biological basis of neurodevelopment and its clinical applications.” Throughout the past year, she has worked under the mentorship of Dr. Shulamite Green in the Sensory, Cognitive, and Affective Neurodevelopment (SCAN) Lab in the Ahmanson-Lovelace Brain Mapping Center at UCLA, learning about ASD, sensory processing, and the brain.

Continuing to work under the mentorship of Dr. Green, Ms. Ramappa’s project will involve analyzing the relationship between psychophysiological and behavioral responses to aversive sensory stimulation during the Sensory Processing 3-Dimensional (SP3D) assessment in comparison with the participants’ emotional and sensory regulation. This will allow her team to observe if children with ASD demonstrate behavioral responses to sensory stimuli that match the physical arousal they experience, and determine whether children who are better at regulating emotions are also better at regulating their sensory responses (i.e., show minimal behavioral reactivity despite high physiological arousal). Through this project, she hopes to find which experimental processes best measure sensory over-responsivity and physiological arousal, as objective measurements of sensory processing have been largely understudied. Additionally, she hopes to expand her understanding of top-down regulation in children with ASD by studying participants who have atypical sensory processing on a neurobiological level but do not show behavioral symptoms. In the future, she hopes to utilize functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) data to determine how fMRI amygdala activation and prefrontal regulation of the amygdala also relates to how children with ASD regulate sensory responses during the SP3D assessment.

To read more about the CART Sigman Scholars program and to learn how to support the program, click here.