How this first-gen student found herself leading lab experiments

September 20, 2019

If you would have told Jonté Roberts (biology, minor in cognitive and behavioral neuroscience ’20) when she was in high school that she would eventually spend six to seven days a week toiling away in a lab and researching different catecholamines and indoleamines, she would have called your bluff.

As a first-generation student, Jonté was thrilled to participate in the Pre-Collegiate Development Program (PCDP) in high school. Unsure of what she wanted to pursue in college and having peers interested in health careers, she later transferred over to the CU Pre-Health Scholars Program (CUPS). Through the program, she became interested in pharmacology and made a plan to attend CU Denver, with sights set on Skaggs School of Pharmacy.

To help get her there and ease her transition from high school to college, she participated in CU’s Summer Bridge Program and later got involved with PCDP again, this time as a peer advocate and work-study student.

Getting introduced to neuroscience

In her first semester, Jonté took an introductory psychology course, where her professor introduced her to the world of neuroscience and scientific research. Impressed by Jonté’s insightful questions, Dr. Alexis Northcutt recommended she pursue a PhD and research career. At the time, she was taken aback having little knowledge of what all that entailed—not entirely knowing what a PhD even was.

“Instead of wanting to know how something works, I’ve always wanted to know why something is the way it is,” said Jonté.

Shortly after, Dr. Lindsey Hamilton visited her general chemistry class to recruit for the Maximizing Access to Research Careers (MARC) program. To her delight, Jonté met all of the qualifications despite being a freshman (thanks to AP credits she received in high school) and was awarded a MARC-U Star scholarship.

MARC is a two-year program that aims to get students involved in research and guide them in pursuing research as a career. As a scholar, Jonté received funding for her research the past two years. She continues to get exposure to mentors, classes, research design and more through the program.

Eager to join a lab and gain research experience, she was soon connected with Dr. Erik Oleson through the Maximizing Access to Research Careers (MARC) program, whose research interests aligned with her own.

Realizing her expertise in the lab

Within the Oleson lab, Jonté is currently studying the effects of manipulating different neurotransmitters (dopamine, serotonin and noradrenaline) on the valuation of reward vs. avoidance. She believes this research is important because further exploring these mechanisms could provide insight into major psychiatric conditions such as addiction and depression.

Jonté in a research lab during her third year.

During her time, she’s been fortunate enough to attend numerous conferences to present research and network with other individuals in her field. One that felt like home was the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS), where she received poster presentation awards. Another memorable one is the International Behavioral Neuroscience Society (IBNS) annual meeting in Australia because it is so niched in the concentration. Jonté was initially the only undergrad that received a travel award to attend.

Even after she graduates in the spring, Jonté will continue her involvement with the lab and the progression of this project and will contribute to its eventual publication.

Doing work-study and being both a MARC scholar and EUREeCA! Fellows student have allowed Jonté to focus all her time and efforts on pursuing her dream. This intense regimen has helped Jonté realize her determination to become a professor and lead investigator of her own research lab someday—devising her own research ideas and using cutting edge techniques to conduct experiments.

Jonté’s future in research

While at CU Denver, Jonté also received an Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program (UROP) grant from the university for her research, won awards at the Research and Creative Activities Symposium (RaCAS) and conducted research with a University of Florida laboratory.

She is beginning the process of applying to PhD programs and laboratories that align with her concentrations. She would love to continue studying the brain and motivated behaviors, with the long-term goal of contributing to the advancement of our scientific knowledge in these areas.