Petit Scholar Inspired by Neuroscience

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Ellen Pikus, a 2015 Petit Undergraduate Research Scholar, inherited an interest in medicine from her parents, who immigrated to the United States after the collapse of the Soviet Union, when hostility and violence toward Russian Jews living in Latvia increased. They’ve enjoyed rewarding health care careers in the Atlanta area – her mom is a nurse, her dad a nurse anesthetist.


But her interest in neuroscience was inspired by the late Oliver Sacks, neurologist and best-selling author. “I read his collection of case studies in The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, and was astonished by the story of a woman who completely lost her sense of proprioception.”


Proprioception is the automatic, unconscious sense of our body’s position, or positions. The story, “The Disembodied Lady,” caused Pikus to start reading up on different neuromuscular disorders. And when she enrolled at Georgia State University, her interest manifested in a five-year program that will result in a master’s degree in neuroscience.


“Neuroscience as a whole is fascinating to me because it is such a relatively new field and there is so much that is still unknown,” says Pikus, a third-year student whose degree will come from Georgia State, but who spends at least 10 hours a week at the Georgia Institute of Technology doing research in the lab of Petit Institute faculty member Minoru Shinohara, associate professor in the School of Applied Physiology.


“There is so much potential to discover new things,” says Pikus, who is doing her part in that regard.  She was engaged in research at the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) when she received an email that went out to all honor students, about the Petit Scholar program. “My project at the CDC was ending, and I wanted another research project, so I decided to apply.”


In Shinohara’s lab, she’s been given autonomy to write her own experiments as part of a project entitled “Sensorimotor Control During Physiological Sympathetic Activation.” Ultimately, her goal is to pursue a dual MD-Ph.D. degree, which would combine her interest in providing care with a love of research.


She spent about 14 hours a week on the Georgia Tech campus spring semester, about 10 hours a week now, most of the time working with healthy human subjects, testing muscle movement, gathering and analyzing data.


The Petit Scholar experience, she says, “has given me more research competence. Now I’m doing my own projects, given raw materials and making something out of it. I feel capable now of going out and doing my own research, creating my own projects.”


This semester is tougher than ever as Pikus puts both sides of her brain through intellectual calisthenics, with classes in organic chemistry, medical neuro-anatomy, chemistry lab and a class in Spanish culture. She says her fluency in Russian and English is helping her grasp Spanish, which is her minor. But her future is in neuromuscular research, and it’ll be here quickly – her current work will be presented at a conference of the Society of Instrument and Control Engineers (SICE) this December in Japan.


“Dr. Shinohara will be presenting the research but I am listed as a co-author, which is very exciting,” says Pikus, who expects to have her data collection finished by the end of spring 2016, with hopes for publication next year. It will be after her stint as a Petit Scholar, “but I am planning to continue in the lab until I’ve finished what I’ve started.”



Jerry Grillo
Communications Officer II
Parker H. Petit Institute for
Bioengineering and Bioscience


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