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Department of Pharmacology & Physiology Meet Jacqueline Barker, PhD

Jacqueline Barker, PhD


Pharmacology & Physiology


  • BA in Psychology – Ohio Wesleyan University
  • PhD in Neuroscience – Yale Univerity
  • Postdoctoral Fellowship – Medical University of South Carolina

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How long have you been with the College of Medicine?

Just over two months. I started November 1.

Where did you come from?

I did my postdoc at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston. I was in the Department of Neuroscience there.

What research are you doing at Drexel?

The focus of my lab is on the neural circuits underlying learning and memory, so the normal processes by which we learn about contexts and contingencies and how we use and integrate that information to guide us through our day-to-day lives, as well as how those normal processes are dysregulated or disrupted in neuropsychiatric illness. Most of my work has been on looking at those circuits in addiction and alcohol use disorders, in particular, with a focus on both individual differences that may underlie risk for addiction-related behaviors as well as the effects of drug and alcohol on those circuits to promote ongoing addictive behaviors. I research how chronic alcohol exposure might make you more likely to develop an alcohol use disorder independent of any biological risk.

How did you become interested in researching this?

I've always been interested in learning and memory. I sort of fell backwards into the addiction world, because one of the best ways to look at a system in its intact form is to break it. Looking at what's happening in an aberrant system can tell you a lot more about what the natural processes are and how those processes are dysregulated, disrupted or altered to promote pathological states. In general, understanding the neurobiology underneath learning and memory is a very exciting topic.

We're at a really exciting point where there's a lot of opportunity to combine cool tools and techniques with a lot of fundamental questions. There are viral tools that allow us to do circuit-specific manipulations. We can tease apart these circuits really carefully and with temporal and anatomical specificity that we didn't have before. Because of this, we can really get at some of the nitty-gritty questions about big-picture, complex behaviors and processes.

Do you have students working in your lab?

I have a technician and two master's students who will be working in the lab, but I would love to have PhD students as well. I've been fortunate to work with a lot of really talented students in the past, at the undergraduate, master's, and PhD levels. I enjoy the conversations and the opportunity to teach people that comes along with mentoring.

How do you conduct your research?

A big focus of my work is habits and the loss of control over your behavior. We train animals on different tasks depending on the questions we're interested in. People develop these automatic, inflexible behaviors, which are involved in addiction and in OCD. People with other neurocognitive impairments show overreliance on habits, so there are a lot of different avenues we can look at. A starting point is a mouse in a box working for a reward. In order to look at some circuit questions, we use optogenetics or chemogenetics.

With optogenetics, we put a light-responsive protein into the cells of interest. For example, we'll put a virus expressing an opsin in the prefrontal cortex. By shining light of the right wavelength, we can control our neurons. We alter activity in a circuit or a population of cells and look at how that contributes to behavior. Does it drive habits? Does it "break" a habit? Is there a specific component of the task that the circuit is involved with? We combine that with in vivo recordings. We actually record from our neurons and see what they're doing at baseline. Recently I had a paper accepted where we see that increased activity in this one brain region happens when an animal pushes a lever, when behavior is goal-directed. If we inhibit right at that time point, we can break the habit. We can actually selectively go in, at this half-second interval in a specific brain region where we've recorded from cells, and manipulate them.

We're also interested in chronic alcohol use. To look at chronic alcohol exposure, we use a vapor exposure model. We look at how neural circuitry and neural activity is altered following exposure and how that might underlie behavioral changes that we see in our models.

Did you always see yourself wanting to work in academia?

Being in the lab was definitely something I've always wanted to do. My bachelor's degree is in psychology. However, I became much more interested in the neural aspect during undergrad when I was working in another lab. I went straight to grad school after undergrad, and I have had few doubts that this was the path I wanted to be on. It's not always an easy path, but I think that it's a really rewarding job. It's fun to get to do something new all the time and to learn something new. It's cool that I get to ask my own questions and answer them. It's a difficult funding climate where you're nervous about what every tax bill and every budget is going to bring. But at the end of the day, it's a really cool job that I'm glad I get to do.

What kind of advice do you have for students considering going into research and medicine?

Get every experience you can. Somebody told me when I was picking a lab that choosing your principal investigator (PI) is the second-most important choice you're ever going to make, after your life partner. Choosing a mentor who cares about science, who cares about doing work right and asking good, exciting questions—whether it's the question you're most interested in or not—having somebody who is not only a role model in terms of career success but in how to do work in a good, scientific, ethical manner is going to make a big difference in your life, and of course, you want them to care about you. Having a mentor who has invested in you as a person and in creating a peer, not in training a trainee, will take you further than anything else.

What qualities do you think a student needs to be successful in a research lab?

For a student who wants to go down the academic path, I think that being self-motivated is critical. Being resilient is also very important, and so is knowing your limits. This is a field where you get rejected a lot. You need to be able to tolerate that, but you also need to know how to take care of yourself.

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Elements of a laboratory experiment.