Undergraduate Research Program

Valerie Tsai

Valerie smiling in front of buildingMajor: Neuroscience and MCD Biology
Mentor: Steve Perlmutter, Physiology and Biophysics

Contact: v881@uw.edu

Current research project: Neural Activity and White Matter Remodeling Following Spinal Cord Injury

Valerie Tsai is a junior in Neuroscience and MCD Biology at the University of Washington interested in the translation of purely academic research to medical applications, and the interdisciplinary aspect of research as a whole. She is currently working in a lab studying electrical stimulation as a treatment for spinal cord injury in rats, and hopes that this research will someday be able to help human patients suffering from spinal cord injuries. She believes research and its results should benefit the public and be more accessible, and has been committed to making her research and other advancements in the field of neuroscience approachable to the general public through her work as an officer of the undergraduate neuroscience journal, Grey Matters.

Translate your work so that we can all understand its importance
The Perlmutter Lab explores various types of electrical stimulation as a treatment for spinal cord injuries in rats, and tests the efficacy of each therapy through a series of behavioral tests that measure the animal’s dexterity, coordination, and strength before and after injury and therapy. We hope that electrical stimulation therapy, once proven effective in rats, may be explored as a treatment for human spinal cord injury patients to improve their mobility and quality of life.


When, how, and why did you get involved in undergraduate research?
I got involved with research the summer after my freshman year by applying to a variety of positions listed in the URP database. I was lucky enough to get an interview for a position with the Perlmutter lab, and I’ve stayed with them ever since. Research was an avenue I knew I wanted to pursue since starting at UW because I’ve always wanted to apply class concepts in the real world and be able to learn the interdisciplinary connections made when those concepts are put in practice. Through the pursuit of research, I hope to not only expand my own knowledge, I hope to do so in a meaningful way that can contribute positively to the scientific community and the lives of others.


What advice would you give a student who is considering getting involved in undergraduate research?
My advice to anyone considering getting involved in research is to go for it! Send those emails, talk to those professors or TAs about their research, and just keep reaching out. As long as you keep trying you will definitely find a lab or project that fits you and your interests, and oftentimes, what PIs or post-docs are looking for is that tenacity or dedication to their research– you need to show them that you’re making an effort, whether it’s by reading their published papers or showing up to an interview with questions about their current projects.

Something I’ve also learned the hard way is that there will always be room for growth. When you’re first starting in a lab, you’re not going to be an expert, and you might be the person with the least knowledge in the room, but don’t let your pride hold you back from embracing that. Ask all your questions about what you don’t know or understand, and just be ready to learn and absorb as much as you can. Ultimately, research is what you make of it and what you get out of the experience, so just go in with an open and curious mind, show that passion and commitment to learning, and from your experience, you won’t only learn more about the research project itself, you’ll learn more about yourself.