Brianna Gonzalez’s parents bought her a microscope for her 10th birthday. They had no idea at the time that the gift would help further what would become a lifelong love of science.
Gonzalez’s passion and devotion to science were rewarded recently when she was named a 2022 recipient of the Stony Brook Foundation Board of Trustees Dissertation Completion Endowed Fellowship, which will provide her with additional funding for her last year of graduate school.
“I’ve been interested in science for as long as I can remember,” said Gonzalez, a PhD candidate in the Integrative Neuroscience program in the College of Arts and Sciences‘ Department of Psychology. “This fellowship allows me to focus on completing my dissertation without worrying about financial hardships.”
Encouraged by her parents, Gonzalez entered science fairs nearly every year in elementary and middle school, and a high school AP course inspired her to study psychology in college. Having a similar interest in research, she enrolled at the University of Florida (UF), not far from her South Florida home, for her undergraduate studies.
“At UF, I took a behavioral neuroscience course in my junior year that was by far my favorite class,” she said. “I loved learning about the brain and epigenetics, and soon found my way into a gene-environment interaction lab.”
Her research and training at UF led her to the lab of Turhan Canli, a professor of Integrated Neuroscience at Stony Brook. “Professor Canli used to do similar research and was among the first to identify a gene-by-environment interaction in the brain,” said Gonzalez. “I was very interested in his work and wanted to gain neuroimaging skills in his lab using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). I applied to the Integrative Neuroscience PhD program at Stony Brook University specifically to work in professor Canli’s lab.”
During the interview process, Gonzalez was contacted by representatives of the Center for Inclusive Education (CIE), who encouraged her to apply for the Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation (LSAMP) program’s Bridge to the Doctorate Fellowship, which she received upon her acceptance to the Integrative Neuroscience program.
“With the Bridge to the Doctorate Fellowship, I received additional funding for my first two years,” she said. “Thanks to the generosity and support from the CIE, it became clear that Stony Brook was the best place for me to complete my PhD.”
Gonzalez’s research focuses on integrating social psychology topics with neuroscience methods to better understand real-life problems and the implications they have on society. Her work includes a series of political cognition projects involving the encoding and memory of “fake news,” as well as projects related to empathy and intergroup bias.
Gonzalez said she began her PhD in 2017 when there was a lot of discussion around the politicized phrase “fake news,” and had the opportunity to work with Canli and her lab mate to build the fMRI project from the ground up. “I think this research is very important and timely,” she said. “I hope that one day I’ll be able to apply it in the real world and make a lasting positive impact on society by changing the way we think about political fake news.”
Canli said Gonzalez’s dissertation tackles a critical question: Does partisanship alter how the brain judges news to be “fake” or “real”?
“Brianna has a passion for combining science with public policy,” said Canli. “Even when we know that a certain piece of news is ‘fake,’ does our brain treat it differently and encode it as truth, when the news happens to agree with our own political bias? She already identified brain regions that differentiate between political messages that are consistent or inconsistent with the viewer’s own beliefs. She is now investigating whether these messages are also differently processed by the brain’s memory circuits. This is exciting work.”
Gonzalez said her Stony Brook experience was very well-rounded, highlighted by lifelong relationships and life-changing experiences, and the support from her peers, faculty, and CIE staff “helped me get to where I am today.”
“I’ve been awarded several fellowships that have allowed me to explore different career paths, present at research conferences, and build a network of connections both inside and outside of academia,” she said.
Gonzalez also served as the coordinator and head instructor for Pink Gloves Boxing (PGB) at the Campus Recreation and Wellness Center for the past four years.
“PGB empowers women, builds community, and is a safe space to learn boxing while having fun,” she said. “Though I recently stepped down from this position to focus on my dissertation, I am still a proud supporter of this incredible program at Stony Brook.”
Gonzalez said the courses she’s taken through the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science have been instrumental in her career as a scientific researcher, teaching her how to engage others, build a personal brand, and communicate with any audience to build trust in science. As for her post-graduate plans, Gonzalez said she’s still exploring all of the career opportunities that are open once she completes her PhD.
“I have a passion for teaching and mentoring and plan to apply for undergraduate teaching positions in psychology and neuroscience around Long Island,” she said. “I also plan to apply for industry positions related to my field and the research that I have conducted at Stony Brook. Another path for me is user experience research, where I can continue to investigate human behaviors and cognitive processes.”
As for her fellowship, Gonzalez is both honored and thankful for the support she has received from the Department of Psychology.
“They are always looking out for me and never fail to recognize my work and the promise of my dissertation research,” she said. “I am grateful to have been selected for this fellowship by the Graduate School and am very appreciative of this recognition.”
— Robert Emproto