It was an auspicious start to the new year: On Jan. 1, neuroscientist Lauren Orefice officially made the jump from postdoctoral researcher in the lab of HMS neurobiologist David Ginty to assistant professor in the Department of Genetics in the Blavatnik Institute at HMS and the Department of Molecular Biology at Massachusetts General Hospital.
As her lab gets up and running, Orefice spoke with myHMS about exploring the underpinnings of touch sensitivity in autism spectrum disorders. She also discussed her canine “intern” and why it’s important to explore new areas as a researcher.
Assistant professor of genetics, HMS and Mass General
What’s in a name: My last name is sometimes difficult for people to say, but it’s pronounced “Oh-rih-FEE-chee.” I always prefer “Lauren,” though!
Research focus: Patients with autism spectrum disorders often report abnormal responses to light touch. Why? We use animal models and cells derived from patients to try to understand the biological underpinnings of touch hypersensitivity. It’s our hope that basic discoveries will inform the development of new treatments that help people with ASD and other neurodevelopmental disorders.
More than skin deep: More specifically, we’re interested in the development, function and dysfunction of the somatosensory system, which processes light-touch information from the skin as well as signals from internal organs such as the gastrointestinal tract. We’ve found in our mouse models that malfunctioning peripheral somatosensory neurons drive abnormal touch sensitivity—and that such sensitivity can affect brain development and function and lead to some ASD-like behaviors. We want to know how that happens. We’re also interested in how somatosensory neurons might convey aberrant signals from the GI tract up to the brain in mice.
Pivot point: As a graduate student, I studied dendritic spine morphogenesis in circuits in the hippocampus. Taking on the peripheral somatosensory system and ASD as a postdoc was a big leap for me, and humbling, because I didn’t know much about it. I completely changed fields—and I loved it. That was a defining moment for me. I realized that even if what you study as an undergraduate or graduate student doesn’t directly relate to your research later on, all the concepts and techniques you learn, all the links you make over time, are important for how you think and develop as a scientist. You are always growing and embracing the unknown.
Freeze frame: If a mouse gets away from you in the lab, it tends to freeze, like it’s looking around at its unexpected freedom and asking, “What do I do?” At times I have empathized with that, because starting your own lab is a lot of work and there’s a lot you have to learn on the fly. But it’s really fun and there’s an amazing network of support here. Being a mentor is so rewarding, and I feel I can be myself as a scientist in this community.
Canine intern: We adopted our pit bull, Pippa, three years ago. My husband and I are both neuroscientists who study animal behavior, so we thought it would be easy for us to train a dog. But Pippa is a rescue, and she was afraid of a lot of things in the beginning. We learned how to communicate with her and make sure she’s happy and well-trained, and now we take her for hikes and small road trips and we play a lot. She spends weekends on the Quad. She hasn’t learned any lab techniques yet, but we’re working on it!
Why HMS: When I started looking for jobs, I really loved the Genetics and Molecular Biology departments. I’m thrilled to continue to be part of this community and to be around my postdoc mentor, who will always be my teacher and my friend. The resources at Harvard are unprecedented. The core facilities and the collaborations we’ve started are exciting and motivating. The questions we can ask and the science we can do here are really incredible. You can think openly and be brave in your science.