Doctoral Student to Use Fellowship for Brain Iron Deficiency Research

Posted in GUMC Stories

December 12, 2016 – Erika Raven (G’17), a Ph.D. candidate in Georgetown’s Interdisciplinary Program for Neuroscience (IPN), has been selected as the 2017 Marshall Sherfield Fellow for postdoctoral work in the United Kingdom.

The Marshall Sherfield Fellowship, administered by the same commission that awards the Marshall Scholarship for graduate study, provides funding for American scientists or engineers to undertake postdoctoral research at a British university or research institute.

“Erika’s selection as a Marshall Sherfield Fellow ensures the continuation of her important research on brain development and her dedicated efforts to share the sciences more widely,” says Georgetown President John. J. DeGioia. “We look forward to following the development of her work in the time ahead.”

Raven’s research focuses on how dietary iron, which is essential to healthy development, contributes to structural and functional changes in the brain during adolescence.

Vulnerable adolescents

She plans to use the prestigious fellowship at the Cardiff University Brain Research Imaging Centre (CUBRIC) to continue investigating the long-term behavioral and cognitive effects of iron deficiency.

“Iron deficiency and anemia are the most common micronutritional deficiencies in the world,” she says. “Adolescent females are extremely vulnerable to peripheral iron deficits, and low peripheral iron levels are strongly linked to diminished cognitive, motor and behavioral functions, as well as developmental disorders such as ADHD.”

Raven’s ultimate research goals are to implement imaging techniques to study physical properties of the brain – providing a more specific and sensitive way to track developmental change, dysfunction and, ultimately, a way to facilitate diagnosis.

“In the next five to ten years, I hope to establish my own lab that collaborates with both clinicians and physicists to pool resources and intellectual expertise towards multidisciplinary projects on brain development,” she says. “By doing so, I can most effectively apply my unique expertise in MRI applications to better assess the microstructure of the brain.”

Academic rigor

Raven, who calls West Los Angeles home, came to Georgetown after receiving her degree in sports medicine from Pepperdine University to study at IPN, which is directed by professor of neuroscience William Rebeck.

The program involves faculty from more than 10 departments across Georgetown’s Medical Center and Main Campus.

“I came to IPN really, because of the late Karen Gale. She was admissions director at the time, and convinced me over a lengthy phone call, or two, to make the move from California,” Raven recalls. “She was absolutely right, and while enjoying the academic rigor of Georgetown, I have also made lifelong friends and colleagues.” 

John VanMeter, professor of neurology and the director of Center for Functional and Molecular Imaging at Georgetown, and Jeff Duyn, the section chief of Advanced Magnetic Resonance Imaging (AMRI) at the National Institutes of Health, served as Raven’s mentors. She established the co-mentorship with AMRI in her second year to focus on the application of specialized neuroimaging methods to study brain microstructure.

Numerous Achievements

The Ph.D. candidate has amassed numerous achievements during her time at Georgetown, including the highly competitive National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship as well as opportunities for international research and professional development.

She also served as an ad-hoc reviewer for Neurobiology of Aging and PLOS ONE journals and has published in numerous other scholarly publications.

“Erika is just what the Marshall Commission wants,” Rebeck says. “She loves her research, she works a lot and she’s always looking for new opportunities.

“She unreservedly deserves this award,” he adds. “It is the kind of fellowship that all our Ph.D. students should be striving for.”