Synapse development and function
We are investigating how synaptic cell adhesion and signaling guide synaptic function and connectivity in the developing human brain, with the ultimate goal of understanding how synaptic dysfunction arising from genetic mutations in synaptic molecules functionally contribute to neuropsychiatric disorders.
Nerve cells in the brain communicate through specialized junctions called synapses. Synaptic connections need to be properly formed, specified and maintained during development and throughout life. Aberrations in this process lead to various neuropsychiatric diseases such as intellectual disability, autism spectrum disorders, and schizophrenia. Therefore, understanding the fundamental roles of proteins important for synaptic development and function is crucial to enhance our understanding and treatment of these disorders.
To this end, we are currently interested in three major areas:
Developing novel tools to better model human synaptic development.
Understanding the normal functions of synaptic cell adhesion molecules and their signaling partners and how they are misregulated in disease states.
Probing disease-relevant mechanisms using patient-derived iPS cells.
We take a multidisciplinary approach including, human pluripotent stem cell-derived neural cells, genome engineering, patient derived iPSCs, and various techniques in synaptic biology, molecular and cellular biology.
ChangHui Pak, Ph.D.
ChangHui received her B.A. from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and her Ph.D. from Emory University School of Medicine. During her graduate work with Drs. Anita Corbett and Ken Moberg, she studied how RNA processing affects normal neural function in Drosophila. Then she moved to Stanford University School of Medicine to work with Dr. Thomas Sudhof (Nobel Laureate in Physiology or Medicine 2013) to study molecular basis of synaptic function. She was supported by postdoctoral NRSA from NICHD and Katharine McCormick award. She is now a faculty member in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at UMass Amherst. In her new lab, she plans to develop novel cellular tools to better understand synaptic dysfunction in disease. She teaches BMB424 (Advanced Biochemistry) and BMB/MCB642 (Advanced molecular biology) at UMass.
Ph.D. Student (MCB)
Originally from Atlanta, GA, Danny started his professional career in technical theater, working in costume shops and opera houses in Washington, DC as a clothing tailor. After five years in the costuming industry, Danny decided to transition into a career in scientific research, pursuing a B.S. in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology first at the University of Southern Maine and finally at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Danny has continued on to pursue a Ph.D. in molecular and cell biology at UMass. Using in vitro neuronal differentiation methods developed by our lab, he is motivated to investigate how proteins regulate human synapse maturation and function and how these proteins contribute to neurodevelopmental diseases like autism spectrum disorders and intellectual differences.
Ph.D. Student (NSB)
Rebecca completed her B.S. in Biomedical Sciences at Arizona State University, where she was first introduced to research as an undergraduate research scientist. This motivated her to work towards her M.S. in Biology with an emphasis in Neuroscience at Arizona State University. Her master's work focused primarily on understanding neurodevelopmental defects related to the Ras/MAPK signaling pathway also known as Rasopathies. Inspired by her master's work, Rebecca decided to continue on her journey as a research scientist by pursuing a doctorate degree here at UMASS Amherst in the Neuroscience and Behavior program. She is currently focused on understanding the molecular activities that underlie synapse formation in human brain development. She primarily utilizes brain organoids for her investigation. Besides research and caring for her organoids, Rebecca is also a food and culture enthusiast. She spends her free time exploring new eateries as well as adventuring to new scenic spots.
Joint Ph.D. student with Sun lab (NSB)
Narciso received his B.A. from Florida International University where he began his journey in academic research. He got his start in an infant and primate motor development lab and went on to widen his horizons by interning at an educational neuroscience lab at the University of Alabama. Currently, Narciso is pursuing his Ph.D. in Neuroscience and Behavior as joint member of the Pak lab and Dr. Sun’s Laboratory for Multiscale Bioengineering and Mechanobiology. His research interests include characterizing the spatiotemporal dynamicity of neurogenesis and engineering new methods for the optimization of tissue culturing and organogenesis.
Rafael studied and received his high school diploma at Peabody Veterans Memorial High School. He is now working on his bachelors in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at UMASS Amherst and has been accepted into the Departmental Honors College for Biochemistry. Here at UMASS, he works as a research assistant in Prof. ChangHui Pak's lab. Rafael is currently working on stem cell derived neural cells to study brain and synaptic development. Rafael plans to complete a senior thesis on the research he conducts on campus and hopes to further his education in medicine after he graduates.
Research fellow/Lab manager
Ruby got her B.S degree in Biochemistry from the University of Massachusetts and has been working in research ever since. Her interest in the molecular mechanisms underlying brain disease and dysfunction began with her work in Dr. Vijaya Ramesh's lab at Mass General Hospital in Boston studying the neurological disorder Neurofibromatosis-2. After some time in Boston, the quiet life of Western Massachusetts called her back and she spent the next 19 years working at the University of Massachusetts in Dr. R.T. Zoeller's lab studying the mechanisms of thyroid hormone directed brain development and chemical pollutants known as endocrine disruptors that interfere with normal brain development. Ruby is excited to join the Pak lab and learn cutting edge techniques to further her knowledge of brain dysfunction as well as to help mentor students and manage day to day lab operations. In her free time Ruby enjoys spending time with her husband and two kids, running and sewing.
Karmen is an undergraduate student double majoring in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology and Neuroscience with a Sociology minor. Karmen developed a fascination for the complexity and intricacy of the brain and its disorders after learning more about neural networks in her early college classes. She joined the Pak Lab as a research assistant to explore her interest in understanding the mechanisms underlying a variety of neurodevelopmental diseases. She hopes to learn more about the growing field of brain organoids and their potential in studying neuron dysfunction. In her free time, Karmen enjoys reading for leisure and traveling to new places.
Yoonjae is an undergraduate student pursuing a dual degree in Biochemistry & Molecular Biology and BDIC on Music and Expressive Therapy concentration. She is interested in learning brain development and synaptic activity at cellular and molecular level. She joined the Pak Lab in Spring 2021, and she is excited for the opportunity to investigate brain dysfunction and how fundamental roles of proteins play an important role in neuropsychiatric disorders. In her free time, Yoonjae loves going for outdoor and food adventures, listening to and playing music, and watching cute dog videos.
Ph.D. Student (MCB)
Jay was born in Odessa, TX and joined the military directly out of high school. After completing his service, Jay obtained a B.S. in Biology from The University of Texas Permian Basin where he worked as an undergraduate researcher studying the effects of endocannabinoids on fatty acid transport across the placental barrier. After matriculation, he obtained his M.S. In Biology with a focus on neurodegenerative diseases from the same school. His work focused on the role of Presenilin Associated Protein in neurodegeneration using amyotrophic lateral sclerosis cell culture and mouse models. Jay continued his research goals in the Molecular and Cellular Biology Ph.D. program at UMass Amherst, where he now studies neural physiology and transcriptomics in both stem cell and patient-derived neuronal culture models of neuropsychiatric disorders.
Anh Nguyen, Research Fellow (RA, Tufts Medical School)
Emily Kellogg, Summer Undergraduate Intern (RA, Harvard Medical School)
Tasneem Rini Rinvee, Undergraduate researcher (RA, Harvard School of Public Health)
Juliana Babu, Undergraduate researcher (RA, Broad Institute & Harvard Medical School)
Rafael Gabriel, Undergraduate researcher (RA, Rutgers Medical School)
Isabelle Maraschi, Undergraduate researcher
Xie T, Kang J, Pak C, Yuan H, Sun Y. “Temporal modulations of NODAL, BMP and WNT signals guide the spatial patterning in self-organized human ectoderm tissues.”Matter 2020, 2(6) June:1621-1638.14.
Tourette Association of America Young Investigator Award (PI - Pak)
William Lee Science Impact Program (Yoonjae Song)
Armstrong Fund for Science Award (PI-Downes, co-PI Pak)
Graduate School Pre-dissertation Award (Rebecca Sebastian)
UMASS Honors College Research Grant (Juliana Babu)
NIH T32/UMASS Biotechnology Training Program Fellowship 2020-2022 (Narciso Pavon)
NIMH R01 Molecular Dissection of Synaptic Dysfunction in Mental Disorders (PI - Pak)
American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Award (Juliana Babu)
MDI Biological Laboratory Quantitative Fluorescence Microscopy Course Scholarship 2020 (Danny McSweeney)
IONS Neuroengineering Seed Fund (co-PI Sun, Pak)
NIH T32/UMASS Biotechnology Training Program Fellowship 2019-2021 (Danny McSweeney)
UMASS Honors College Research Assistant Fellowship (Rafael Gabriel)
Join our lab
We are searching for passionate, curious and motivated scientists to join our team!
We welcome graduate students affiliated with MCB and NSB graduate programs. Interested students should email PI at firstname.lastname@example.org for rotation opportunities.
We are seeking candidates with strong training in broad areas of molecular and cellular neuroscience. Interested candidates should contact PI at email@example.com.
Interested candidates should email firstname.lastname@example.org for an application.
Pak Lab News
Congratulations Yoonjae for successfully completing LeeSIP summer research in the lab!
Lab tubing trip on Deerfield river take 2!
Welcome on board Jay! And the duck!
Congratulations Juliana and Raf for successful honors thesis defense! You will be truly missed...
Ruby's gift to us all.
We ended a difficult year with cheerful hearts - Pak lab zoom holiday party!
Congratulations Danny on passing your candidacy during a pandemic!
Lots of birthday cakes this year 2020!
Ruby joins our lab! Welcome!
Lab holiday party - dumplings and salad bowl
Lab bowling madness
Rebecca joins our lab! Welcome!
Pak lab photo
Emily (Mount Holyoke College) has successfully completed her summer internship in the lab!
Lab tubing trip on Deerfield River!
Welcome to our fantastic cohort of undergraduate researchers - Rini, Rafael and Juliana!