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Student Q&A: Sophia Wienbar, NUIN

Bryan McClarty

Sophia Wienbar, graduate student in the Northwestern University Interdepartmental Neuroscience (NUIN) program, studies optical processing neurons in the laboratory of Gregory Schwartz, PhD, the Derrick T. Vail Professor of Ophthalmology and an associate professor of Neuroscience.

Where is your hometown?

I grew up in San Mateo, Calif. in the San Francisco Bay Area.

What are your research interests?

I am interested in how neurons process sensory input about the world around them, with a focus on intrinsic properties. To study this, I work in the retina where the tissue and circuits are intact and we can deliver the natural stimulus: light! I work on retinal ganglion cells which are the spiking output cells of the retina that compute features of the mouse’s visual world. I can then dissect the computations that the retinal ganglion cell uses to produce its spiking output and investigate its intrinsic properties.

What exciting projects are you working on?

I have characterized a novel retinal ganglion cell that undergoes depolarization block in response to contrast stimuli. It is a rare type of retinal ganglion cell that is suppressed-by-contrast, which means that it decreases its firing rate for both positive and negative contrasts and it uses depolarization block to do so. We typically think that depolarization block only occurs in epileptic or other disordered states, so I find this exciting because it’s a physiological use of depolarization block for cell type specific computations.

What attracted you to your program?

The breadth of faculty, research, and students. I was confident that there would be a research group where I would find the work exciting and look forward to being in the lab every day.

What has been your best experience at Feinberg?

One thing that I miss from the pre-pandemic times are the in-person seminar series. I really appreciated the time to gather with colleagues and friends to learn something exciting and cutting edge. Plus, the free cookies didn’t hurt either.

How would you describe the faculty at Feinberg?

A great support system! I find that my interactions with faculty are largely positive, and that they are happy to give advice or support. I feel that during my time in Feinberg, I have come to see some of the faculty as peers, which is really empowering as a graduate student.

What do you do in your free time?

During the pandemic, I acquired a large number of plants, mostly through trading with other people. It has been a very meditative hobby and it has been rewarding to see new growth.

What are your plans for after graduation?

I will be continuing in academia and pursue a post-doctoral position in the field of retinal physiology. I aim to continue with the trajectory of intrinsic properties and dive even further into the biophysical aspects.