Date June 7, 2021
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Tara Srinivas: Examining the causes of a rare neurodevelopmental condition

After postponing her plans for a year due to the pandemic, recent Brown graduate and Fulbright fellow Tara Srinivas will travel to Spain to research how epigenetic factors may influence neurodevelopment in Rett syndrome.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — For Fulbright winner Tara Srinivas, the second time was the charm.

The Class of 2020 Brown graduate first applied to the flagship international fellowship program during her senior year, with the hope of conducting neurodevelopment research at the Josep Carreras Leukaemia Research Institute, a cutting-edge research center located outside of Barcelona, Spain. She was successful, but the COVID-19 pandemic put a wrench in her plans: Because of international travel restrictions and public health protocols, her fellowship period would be cut from the typical year to just five months.

“I just knew that I wouldn’t be able to get my research project done in that time,” Srinivas said.

Without the option to defer, Srinivas took a gamble. She turned down the award, proposed the same project for the 2021–22 cycle, and crossed her fingers while embarking upon a master’s in physiology, development and neuroscience at the University of Cambridge in the U.K.

The wait was nerve-wracking, but Srinivas’s risk paid off when she was named a winner, once again, this spring.

“It’s surreal that it’s finally happening,” she said. “I’m beyond happy.”

At the institute, Srinivas will use patient-derived stem cells to study the role that epigenetic factors —  elements (in this case, RNA molecules) that influence the expression of genes without altering their DNA sequences — play in Rett syndrome, a rare neurodevelopmental condition that affects brain development.

“There’s so much left to explore in epigenetics,” Srinivas said. “My hope is that using it to study Rett syndrome will contribute to our understanding of the condition and help researchers develop new therapies, if needed and desired by patients.”

“At Brown, I learned so much about how to become an independent researcher. I’m looking forward to expanding upon these skills while in Spain — to continuing to learn how to formulate and test my own hypotheses and to employ new techniques in the lab.”

Tara Srinivas Fulbright Winner, Brown Class of 2020 Graduate
Tara Srinivas

The project will build upon her studies at Brown, where she concentrated in neuroscience and served as an undergraduate researcher in the laboratory of Dr. Eric Morrow, whose work seeks to better understand the genetic factors that contribute to conditions on the autism spectrum.

“At Brown, I learned so much about how to become an independent researcher,” she said. “I’m looking forward to expanding upon these skills while in Spain — to continuing to learn how to formulate and test my own hypotheses and to employ new techniques in the lab.”

Srinivas’s Fulbright fellowship will also offer her an invaluable opportunity to live and work within a culture that she has been studying for nearly a decade, she said.

She began studying Spanish language as a middle schooler, but her interest in the language and culture of Spanish-speaking countries deepened when, as a high schooler, she had the opportunity to visit Costa Rica, Ecuador and Argentina with her family.

“It was the first time I had ever used Spanish outside of the classroom,” said the Broomfield, Colorado, native. “I just became enamored with the power of language, and the power of Spanish in particular.”

While at Brown, Srinivas deepened her understanding of the language and culture of Spanish-speaking countries, pursuing coursework in the Hispanic studies department while completing her neuroscience degree.

She said that spending a year in Spain as a Fulbright fellow will allow her to heighten her Spanish language skills while developing a nuanced appreciation for the country’s diverse culture — including in Barcelona, where as many people speak Catalan as they do Spanish.

“Being able to really immerse myself in the language will be an amazing opportunity,” Srinivas said. “And I’m really excited to learn more about Spanish culture from the community I’ll live in and from fellow Fulbrighters who are studying the humanities and arts.”

After completing her Fulbright, Srinivas plans to begin medical school. She said she looks forward to seeing firsthand the impact that scientific research has on patients — something she first witnessed when shadowing Morrow on his clinical rounds during her time at Brown.

“Getting to meet families who are affected by these conditions really helped me explore the questions: Why am I in the lab? Why am I studying these conditions? And what does my research mean to these patients and their families?” she said. “The impact of that experience is definitely what drives me to continue this research now.”