The vibrant, diverse brain health community at Illinois is working to find solutions to some of today’s most pressing societal health challenges in fields including aging; learning, memory and plasticity; nutrition and cognition; neuroengineering; neuro-and socio-genomics; bioinformatics; and more. More than 300 faculty and staff on the Urbana-Champaign campus identify as researchers in the brain health space—regardless of their home department affiliation. These researchers are using leading-edge imaging tools, pioneering studies that progress from the lab to clinical applications with the goal of improving the health and lives of people everywhere. For fall 2020, we have expanded the spotlight to focus on the bright, dedicated graduate students and postdoctoral researchers who make up the next generation of innovators and leaders in our community.
Corinne Cannavale is a PhD candidate in the Neuroscience Program. She received her Bachelor of Science Degree in Molecular and Cell Biology with a minor in chemistry from Illinois in 2017. She then joined the Body Composition and Nutritional Neuroscience Lab during the summer of 2017. Corinne’s main research interests are in learning and memory, specifically, how memory can be modulated through different health behaviors. Her main research projects are in understanding how dietary carotenoids and obesity-related chronic inflammation can impact memory function. In her free time, Corinne enjoys science communication and outreach, reading, and cooking.
Do you have a personal story to share or path that led to your interest in this area of study?
My initial interest in the brain came during my sophomore year of my undergraduate degree. I was changing majors into the Molecular and Cellular Biology program and wanted to get involved in research on campus. At the same time, my dad was fighting brain cancer and was participating in a clinical trial. I connected with Edward Roy and began working in his laboratory. During my time in his lab, I fell in love with research, working on a senior thesis project studying the same type of cancer that my dad had been fighting. I spent a lot of time reading about and taking classes about the brain for my remaining time in undergrad. During my senior year, I took a class with Hillary Schwarb and became fascinated with human memory and how it can be modulated by different health behaviors. Hillary was able to connect me with (at the time) a graduate student in Dr. Neal Cohen’s lab, Kelsey Hassevoort. I began working in Neal’s lab during my senior year and really enjoyed the work being done with human subjects, which I was able to continue working on through my graduate education working with Naiman Khan.
How does being part of the University of Illinois and/or the Champaign-Urbana community impact your research?
The University of Illinois has so much interesting interdisciplinary work being done, and it is the best place to be for someone like me, studying the brain in relation to human health. Almost all of the research projects I have worked on have been cross-disciplinary collaborations. Illinois' land grant mission has also led to me being able to collaborate with the University of Illinois Extension and the IHSI to create evidence-based community programming. The work I have done with Extension and IHSI has been my favorite part of graduate school and has helped me understand what I see myself doing as a career. As graduate students, the resources available to us from the university are so wide that you can really find your place and pursue what you are truly passionate about.
Recent news has pointed to the COVID-19 pandemic, systemic racism, and mental health as major societal health challenges. What part can researchers in your field play, in and out of the lab, in addressing these challenges?
I think creating a more active role for scientists in community outreach and education is a big step for us being able to address some of these issues. With so much misinformation surrounding a lot of these societal issues, it is difficult for the public to determine what is correct. By having scientists who are trained in evaluating information and who are usually on the forefront of scientific discovery, we can help equip our community with the tools needed to critically analyze the information they consume. We also hope that by elevating the voices for those of all ethnicities, gender identities, and sexual orientations, we can show our community that science is for everyone. Our work can help to inspire a more diverse and culturally aware upcoming generation of scientists. With more diversity in science we can prevent biases from further impacting research being disseminated to the community.
In regards to the systemic racism that has been present for hundreds of years, I think scientists all must critically evaluate their own biases, and think about how these biases manifest in their own work. Racism and racial bias have no place in science, but many times science still suffers from biases. We must do all we can to combat what is happening to prevent any continuation of these practices. This could look like ensuring that sample populations utilized in studies are representative of all ethnicities, making sure that people of all ethnicities are seen and represented within the scientific field, and being sure to give people of color a platform to speak, educate, and make change from within. It is not enough to condemn racism, action must be taken for our society to move forward.
How will your work help to improve society or reach people?
With the COVID-19 pandemic, moving our community outreach efforts online was a requirement, but this pushed us to be in a position where we could reach more people than I could possibly imagine. Our Summer Self-Care Series averaged between 250 and 350 people per week in attendance at our webinars. I am so excited to be continuing this fall with plans to provide more content in the spring and hope that by providing these community seminars, I can help to create a more informed community. While the information on wellness is great and well received, I hope attendees also take away the tools they will need to be critical of the information they consume so that they can be well informed in all information and not just what is presented in our webinars.
Do you want to tell us about any projects or activities that you are particularly excited about right now?
This Wednesday (9/23/20) we kicked off the first of 9 community seminars! The Autumn Health Picks Series will run from 9/23/20-11/18/20 every Wednesday at noon. I am hosting the next webinar on Wednesday (9/30/20), and will be talking about carotenoids and their impact on brain health. We will also have amazing talks by some of our previous speakers Jonathan Cerna, Leila Shinn, Mickeal Key, and Noah Hutchinson and new speakers Shelby Keye, Breanna Metras, and Heather Kopsco. If you want to learn more about the upcoming talks and register, you can go to go.illinois.edu/healthpicks2020.