Yu ‘Yuki’ Dai wants to revolutionize how we think about brain illness

Yu "Yuki" DaiPhoto/Mike Lovett

Yu "Yuki" Dai '17

Prior to attending Brandeis, Yu “Yuki” Dai ’17 expected to pursue a career in psychiatry by studying biology and following the premed track.

But her plans evolved after she met neuroscience professor Shantanu Jadhav and started working in his laboratory.

Dai, a native of Jiangsu, China, now considers Jadhav her mentor and friend because of the perspective she’s gained since first starting to work with him as a junior, and for the advice he’s provided her about applying to graduate school, which Dai will start in the fall as a PhD student at Harvard University.

“I met professor Jadhav at a psychology lab fair event on campus,” Dai said. “I started working for him because I discovered that I wanted to study cognition from more of a neuroscience and biological perspective.”

“He’s been my mentor ever since we met,” Dai added. “He encourages his students to explore what they’re interested in.”

Dai had two stints working in the Jadhav Lab. The first came when she was an undergraduate while the second came shortly after graduation when she became a paid research assistant in McLean Hospital working also for professor Elif Engin.

The Jadhav Lab studies the interactions between different regions of the brain, with an emphasis on the hippocampus – the memory and learning center – and the prefrontal cortex.

During her undergraduate study, Dai and her colleagues in the lab inactivated the connections between the two brain regions in rats and studied the importance of this connection for animals in encoding new information, and their findings have been published in the journal Neurobiology of Learning and Memory last September.

Dai takes this one step further as a research assistant.

She now conducts electrophysiology recording on freely moving transgenic mice. The process records the animals’ brain signals as they perform tasks that require behavioral flexibility to adapt to environmental changes. The research studies the correlation between brain oscillations and behavior in order to study behavioral rigidity, which is a common cognitive deficit in many psychiatric illnesses, such as major depressive disorders, schizophrenia, and autism.

“I am very happy to have had the opportunity to work both in McLean Hospital and the Jadhav Lab after graduating, since I can use the cutting-edge techniques that the Jadhav Lab provides to study the question that means the most to me,” said Dai. “I’m really interested in studying common symptoms underlying mental illnesses from multiple levels using different approaches.”

Dai said her interests in psychiatric research align well with the National Institute of Mental Health’s Research Domain Criteria Project, which uses new approaches to investigate mental disorders by integrating many levels of information to explore basic dimensions of human behavior.

With society continuing to change how it views mental illness, Dai wants to be part of this new movement among scientists. She enjoys working in a laboratory and doing research, but would also consider playing an active role in science advocacy and eventually policymaking.

“The psychiatry field is going through a revolution in the sense that mental illness diagnoses in the past have been subjective and not comprehensive,” she said. “from a research perspective, there’s a push to redefine psychiatric disorders by using more comprehensive systems. I want to become one of the leaders in this revolution.”

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