Meet the Researcher: Shenelle Shaw

Original Article available at UConn Today Site

Undergraduate researcher Shenelle Shaw is investigating how an enzyme may have a bigger role in seizure activity than scientists had assumed.

Shenelle Shaw (Christie Wang / UConn Photo)

Shenelle Shaw (CLAS ’23) has always had a knack for taking care of people, whether that be her own family members, or the patients she hopes to help as a future doctor.

“Being a caretaker was always something that called out to me and I knew I would be in the medical field for that reason,” Shaw says.

Originally from Jamaica, Shaw came to the U.S. when she was 15 years old. As she adjusted to high school in the U.S., UConn became Shaw’s dream school.

Now a molecular and cell biology major on the pre-med track, Shaw had found an additional outlet for her desire to better people’s lives – research.

Shaw was accepted into the McNair Scholars Program for the Spring 2021 semester. Shaw began working in Professor Anastasios Tzingounis’ lab in the Department of Physiology and Neurobiology.

The research Shaw is performing is aimed at better understanding how seizures happen. Scientists know that an enzyme known as DYRK1A plays an important role in activating KCNQ2 channels in the brain. When these channels are over-expressed, people experience seizures and or have epilepsy.

The brain is very complex, it’s never a one-to-one relationship with these things. — Shenelle Shaw

While DYRK1A is just an enzyme, it leads to excitability changes. Shaw suspects this means it may play a more important role in seizure activity than scientists currently think.

“That’s what I want to investigate, if it’s doing more than just being an enzyme,” Shaw says. “I believe DYRK1A may be targeting ion channels. The brain is very complex, it’s never a one-to-one relationship with these things.”

This particular issue is close to home for Shaw, whose sister suffered from a severe bout of seizures when Shaw was in high school. Looking at the jumbled medical charts in her sister’s hospital room, Shaw felt a sense of helplessness at how little she could do to assist.

“I realized I couldn’t do anything, because I didn’t know anything,” Shaw says.

Shaw has turned this feeling of confusion into a passion for finding answers her sister didn’t have at the time.

Shaw says her experience in Tzingounis’ lab has been a supportive journey.

“I felt super nervous and scared it was going to be an environment where I had to do everything perfect the first time, but it’s not like that at all,” Shaw says. “If you are failing in one aspect, someone will help you out until you master it.”

Shaw’s experience performing research has differed significantly from the kinds of labs she had done for classes.

“In the lab I’m in, I have more control over what I’m looking at and I became more passionate about it because I have more say over what I’m doing,” Shaw says.

Shaw was also part of the Women in Math, Science, and Engineering (WiMSE) Learning Community. Through this experience she met other women who served as mentors for Shaw as she started her UConn career.

“I met other women in STEM who were really smart and independent,” Shaw says.

Shaw says her experience performing research as an undergraduate has shown her that there is room in her future career for both medicine and research.

“Before doing research I had a very strict view that you could either do medicine or you could do research,” Shaw says. “But there are so many careers that are a mix of both.”

Students interested in learning more about research opportunities at UConn can check out the series of events offered as part of the Month of Discovery. Come to Research Connections on Oct. 15, 2021, to talk with dozens of participating researchers and learn about the incredible range of research and creative projects being pursued at UConn. 

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