From motor neurons to Malta – A graduate student profile


By Lydia Grmai

The Society for Developmental Biology comprises scientists who demonstrate excellence in both research and leadership. Kristen D’Elia, winner of the 2021 Best Graduate Student Poster Award at the SDB 80th Annual Meeting, is no exception. D’Elia, from the New York University Vilcek Institute of Graduate Biomedical Sciences, recently defended her dissertation work that utilized the zebrafish model organism to identify differentiation markers in motor neuron subtypes. D’Elia was jointly mentored by David Schoppik and Jeremy Dasen.

As the 2021 Best Graduate Student Poster Award winner, SDB and the British Society for Developmental Biology (BSDB) supported D’Elia’s attendance at the BSDB Meeting held in conjunction with the 20th International Conference of the International Society of Differentiation (ISD) in Malta, September 4-7, 2022. In an interview in October, D’Elia shared with us some highlights from her experience at the conference, describing her poster presentation session as a highlight of the trip.

“It’s always great to see enthusiasm about your work and get feedback, especially as we are preparing to publish a manuscript on our work,” she said. “Also, I loved getting to meet scientists whose work I’ve known for a while and talk to them about theirs.”

D’Elia mentioned getting to hear many exciting talks at the BSDB meeting, including from Vicki Metzis on regional identity in the nervous system and Anna Kincheva on growth and patterning of the developing spinal cord. Reflecting on things she learned from her experience in Malta, D’Elia pointed out the benefit of getting to attend in-person conferences again. While she noted that previous SDB meetings that had to go virtual in the height of the pandemic were very well-organized and engaging, she emphasized the benefit of getting to engage in unexpected interactions in person that may not have happened in an online meeting format.

“The poster next to me was by a PI whose work didn’t seem immediately related to mine – but I ended up getting to have a great scientific conversation with someone I might not have intuitively reached out to otherwise,” she said.

In the interview, D’Elia described the evolution of interests that led her to pursue a Ph.D. in neuroscience. She said her love for reading at a young age helped her dive into the psyche of different characters, and this interest in human psychology eventually led her to wonder about the underlying biology behind brain function. Ultimately, she was able to make key discoveries about the temporal regulation of neuronal specification.

In addition to her research discoveries, D’Elia was involved in a number of outreach and communication initiatives in graduate school, including an editorial role for The Sackler Messenger, a graduate student newsletter. She also participated in a neuroscience outreach group called Noggin and served as a mentor to high school students through Clear Direction Mentoring, a non-profit organization that provides mentoring in science, technology, engineering, math, and medicine (STEMM) research to high school students.

During her graduate studies, D’Elia published several first-author publications and is preparing another on her dissertation research. She will no doubt continue to demonstrate her tremendous skills in her next scientific pursuits.

Last Updated 01/10/2023