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In search of . . . excitotoxis mechanisms: Belinda Barbagallo

On Tuesdays, the Daily Voice features a first-person narrative from a researcher explaining the science behind a recent grant, and the inspiration or impetus behind becoming a scientist at UMass Medical School. If you know of a researcher you’d like to see profiled, send an email to

Belinda Barbagallo, BS, graduate student in the lab of Michael M. Francis, PhD, assistant professor of neurobiology, talks about her fellowship grant Indentifying excitotoxis mechanisms in a C. elegans model of axon destabilization: National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke; one year, $28,314.

My research focuses on identifying the genetic pathways that are activated when neurons undergo excitotoxic cell death. Excitotoxic cell death occurs when a neuron becomes overly stimulated, which triggers various cellular responses and can eventually lead to cell death. This form of cell death is thought to occur in multiple human pathologies that affect large numbers of people world-wide, including ischemic stroke and amyotropic lateral sclerosis (ALS). Though some of the basic players in this form of neurodegeneration have been identified, a lot of the genetic details involved remain a mystery. We use the nematode C. elegans as a genetic model to identify these missing genetic players and determine where in the excitotoxic pathway they belong.

Our ultimate goal is to understand the mechanisms that control excitotoxicity in neurons. Knowledge of these mechanisms will provide us with targets for the development of preventitive drugs and theraputic treatments for patients suffering from excitotoxic events such as stroke.

Being a scientist is like being a detective, you get to ask questions and figure out creative ways to find the answers. It is the constant persuit of answers that makes it exciting to go to work every day. When you combine this excitement with the knowledge that your research can eventually impact the quality of people’s lives, there are few career paths that are more satisfying.

My first experience at UMass was as an intern in the Cancer Biology Department during my undergraduate studies. One of the most striking things about UMass is the sense of community you get almost immediately. Both the faculty and the students are very open and willing to answer questions or help with experiments. When it came time to apply to graduate school, I visited multiple insititutions and never quite found the same sense of community that I did at UMass. 

The most exciting part about neurobiology research is that the field as a whole is moving at an unbelievably fast pace. Recent advances in technology are allowing us to rapidly fill in the gaps in our knowledge of the brain and how it works.