Student Spotlight

Student Spotlight: Elena Carazo Arias, PhD Candidate in Biological Sciences

Elena Carazo Arias

Where did you grow up? 
Madrid, Spain.

What drew you to your field? 
My father is a scientist, and as a kid I was mesmerized by how he seemed to have answers to all the questions I had about the world around us. As I grew up and my questions became more complex, the most satisfying answers usually came from science. Later, when I studied biology in college, it seemed like most things in nature tend to follow a logical and beautiful pattern (yes, I was the weirdo who loved organic chemistry!). However, the field that seemed to always remain a mystery was neuroscience, and eventually the prospect of understanding how brains do what they do led me to my current research path.

How would you explain your current research to someone outside of your field? 
I study what antidepressants like Prozac do to your brain to make you feel better. There is a specific subregion of the brain called the “dentate gyrus,” which we know is important for mediating the effects of Prozac. I study mice who have been given antidepressants, and I observe their brain activity in that subregion through a lens attached to a tiny microscope that the mice carry on their heads while they are facing a stressful situation. By observing the changes in brain activity and in their behavior after antidepressant treatment, I aim to understand better what exactly Prozac is doing to those neurons to affect a mouse's behavior.

What resources or opportunities that Columbia provides have been most valuable to you?
Professionally, the resource that has served me the most has been the Center for Teaching and Learning. Over the years, I have attended the CTL’s Innovative Teaching Summer Institute, and have been a Teaching Observation Fellow as well as a Lead Teaching Fellow. CTL is an amazing resource for anybody curious about teaching, and I strongly recommend getting involved!

Personally, the most valuable resource has been Counseling and Psychological Services. Pursuing a PhD can be stressful, and it's great to know that there is a place on campus to ask for help if you need it.

Is there a common misconception about a topic in your field that you wish you could correct?
I hope everybody knows this by now and I'm just preaching to the choir, but I'll repeat it for the ones in the back: Anxiety and depression are serious mood disorders, and “snapping out of it” or “just cheering up” are not options for people suffering from them. Antidepressants save lives but sometimes get a bad rap. 

What do you consider your greatest achievement?
I'm really proud of being co-president for Women in Science at Columbia (WISC), a grad student-led group dedicated to outreach, support, and the advancement of women and underrepresented minorities in STEM fields at Columbia. I’ve loved being able to create projects from scratch, taking them from abstract ideas to concrete things that, I hope, are helping young women and girls in science in our community.

Who are your favorite writers?
I've always loved the magical realism of Gabriel García Márquez and Isabel Allende. I also enjoy some writers from my native Spain, such as Almudena Grandes and Julia Navarro.

Who is your hero of fiction?
My earliest hero of fiction probably was Hermione Granger from the Harry Potter books. She is a brilliant, courageous, and outspoken young woman who stands up for herself—even when she is shamed for being “an insufferable know-it-all.” I like to think that if she existed in our world, she would become an outstanding woman in science.

Who in your field do you consider to be a role model?
Definitely my advisor, René Hen. He is not only eminent in the field, but he is also a great mentor and human being. We also share a love for good cheese!