Annual Black History Month Scholar Series: Dr. Gina Poe

Annual Black History Month Scholar Series: Dr. Gina Poe

On March 16, Wagner College received the 2021 Black History Month Scholar’s Lecture, delivered by Gina Poe, Ph.D., a UCLA neuroscientist specializing in the study of sleep and its effect on memory and learning. The title of her lecture was, “The Essential Work of Sleep: What, Why, and How Critical Life Functions are Only Served by Sleep”


View the video of the event below!

Dr. Poe waded through 12 stressful and sleepless finals weeks to earn her BA in Human Biology at Stanford University only to find herself underqualified for some jobs and overqualified for others. Thankfully Dr. Poe landed a minimum wage job as a research technician at the VA Sepulveda with Barry Sterman for two years studying test pilot brainwaves before getting arm-twisted to apply to a PhD program in Neuroscience at UCLA. There she was shocked to find that she would be paid to go to school and to discover new things with the wonderful researchers in the laboratory of Ron Harper. Gina and her colleagues tested a new coherent fiber optic imaging system that measured neural activity from subcortical areas and discovered that the emotional circuit limbic structure of the hippocampus becomes highly active in the seconds preceding spontaneous sighs and apneas during sleep – perhaps explaining why people hold their breath in central apneas during sleep.

After camping, conferences, earthquakes, a riot, and her dissertation defense, Gina moved to the University of Arizona to work with Carol Barnes on memory problems that sometimes come with aging. She also joined Bruce McNaughton and Jim Knierim to send 4 rats into space on the NASA Neurolab space shuttle mission to test the adaptability of our hippocampal map to the 3D world of weightlessness. Both of those cool projects were ways to pay the bills so she could work on her secret passion project testing whether REM sleep served remembering or forgetting (spoiler alert: both!). Her finding that new memories were strengthened while old, consolidated ones were erased from the hippocampus served as the foundational study that launched her independent career. Although 55 universities ignored her application for a faculty position, she was invited by sleep research colleague department chair Jim Krueger to apply for a tenure track faculty position at Washington State University. After adjusting to the fact that she was moving to what amounted as an outpost station on the moon, Gina fell in love with Pullman, WA. In addition to setting up a lab with bright, eager students, she was handed the responsibility of directing the new undergraduate neuroscience degree program and teaching her first full course. Just as she earned her first NIH grant to test whether the switch of REM function from remembering to forgetting was consolidation dependent, her first graduate PhD student, Theresa Bjorness, chose her lab and the discoveries started rolling in.

In 2001 love called Dr. Poe to Michigan and another sleep colleague, the Anesthesiology Department Research Chair, recruited her to transfer her lab, grant, and tenure track position to the University of Michigan. Two kids, three PhD students, 5 postdoctoral scholars, four lab moves, three NIH R01 grants and 15 years later, Dr Poe, lab, family and grants were recruited to UCLA where Dr. Poe directs three university programs preparing undergraduates who are underrepresented in the STEM fields for careers in STEM. Dr. Poe’s laboratory continues to study the mechanisms underlying the role of REM sleep in memory consolidation. Her 4 talented Ph.D. students and the 6 stellar undergraduate research assistants supporting them are probing how sleep serves to give us insights into difficult problems, process traumatic memories, and clean our temporary memory storage places to allow new memories form and consolidate. It is an exciting time in the Poe Sleep and Memory lab as Michelle Frazer discovers how our brain knows what is familiar and therefore erasable, Yesenia Cabrera discovers whether and how females are variably resilient to the long term effects of traumatic stress, and Ward Pettibone and Rockelle Guthrie discover how vertebrate mammals replay experiences during sleep to gain insights.