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Nicola Kriefall

College: Hunter College
Awards: Goldwater Scholarship, 2014

An Electrically Charged Fish Story

Fish like the black ghost knifefish from the Amazon are not normally found on restaurant menus, but with their ability to send and receive weak electric signals, they must appear tantalizingly attractive to knifefish of the opposite gender.

In the lab at Hunter College, junior Nicola Gabriele Kriefall - winner of a highly competitive 2014 Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship - does her best to communicate with such African and Amazonian fish, sending electric signals to see how they respond. “We look at their behavior and collect testosterone and cortisol [both hormones] to see how levels correlate with their behavior,” she says.

Working with psychology professor Christopher B. Braun, she is “trying to see if they use electric signals to assert social dominance - that’s our hypothesis - which is why collecting cortisol, which is a stress hormone, and testosterone, which correlates with aggression and dominance, are so important.”

She presented her research on whether jamming establishes social dominance in weakly electric fish at Hunter College’s Undergraduate Research Conference and 42nd Annual Psychology Convention this spring.

Kriefall has been working in the lab for more than a year, starting by caring for fish and helping other students until she got her own project.

Then she began branching out.

With support from the Hunter/Howard Hughes Medical Institute, a fund for undergraduate biology majors, she will spend two months this summer at Woods Hole’s Marine Biological Laboratory, an international center for research, education and training in biology biomedicine and ecology on Cape Cod.

Picking up a research project into neurodegenerative diseases that she began there last summer under the guidance of University of Illinois-Chicago assistant professor Gerardo Morfini, she will inject proteins produced by these diseases into squid neurons to see how they affect molecular mechanisms. Last summer, she used peptides that came from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s Disease) and this summer also will work with Huntington’s disease proteins.

Kriefall anticipates a career that combines marine biology, her original passion, with her newfound interest in neuroscience, perhaps looking “at the nervous systems of marine animals and doing conservation research.”

Congress established the Goldwater Scholarship program in 1986 to honor the long-time senator by providing a continuing source of highly qualified scientists, mathematicians and engineers by awarding scholarships to college students who intend to pursue research careers.