At 2 a.m., senior biology major Francis Aguisanda can be found at the Krasnow Institute for Advanced Study peering into a sophisticated microscope that optically slices a fruit fly’s nervous system tissue to create a 3-D image.
When not in class or working as a student leader, the Mason undergraduate spends much of his time in this small room filled with about $1 million worth of microscopes in Krasnow’s basement.
Aguisanda chose Mason because he wanted to do meaningful research as an undergraduate. He’s worked in the lab of Mason neuroscientist Daniel Cox since he was a sophomore.
Aguisanda is looking at dendrites, small “branches” that spread from neurons. How dendrites branch—stunted or with long branches—changes how neurons connect to form functioning neural circuits. More specifically, Aguisanda is investigating the function of a class of molecules called microRNAs in regulating dendrite development. The Cox lab is also looking at the role dendrites play in pain response. This research could help identify molecules that could be targets for development of new pain medicine.
“Having undergraduates in our lab has been a game changer in terms of very large projects,” says Cox, an OSCAR mentor. “They’re an integrated component of the lab.”
Along with a rigorous academic program, Aguisanda says he looked for diversity when choosing a university. “It’s great to attend a university that’s really a microcosm for what the world looks like as a whole,” he says. “I tell people all the time that the only two places more diverse than Mason are the United Nations and international airports.”