October 27, 2021

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Unraveling the maze of addiction: Florence Varodayan hits her stride as a researcher and mentor

Florence Varodayan, a new hire in Binghamton’s Psychology Department, is the SUNY system’s first Chancellor’s Early-Career Scholar. Florence Varodayan, a new hire in Binghamton’s Psychology Department, is the SUNY system’s first Chancellor’s Early-Career Scholar.
Florence Varodayan, a new hire in Binghamton’s Psychology Department, is the SUNY system’s first Chancellor’s Early-Career Scholar. Image Credit: Jonathan Cohen.

After a few too many drinks, the individuals struggle to navigate the twists and turns of the path ahead.

But while the alcohol is real, this isn’t a Friday night on the town. In Assistant Professor of Psychology Florence Varodayan’s lab, the drinkers are mice and the road home is through an actual maze.

“Like humans, the animals are initially hesitant to consume alcohol,” explains Varodayan, who joined Binghamton University’s Psychology Department in January 2020. “After repeated exposure, the rodents will drink at high levels equivalent to human binge-drinking.”

By studying animal models, Varodayan hopes to understand how chronic alcohol use can create neurobiological changes in the brain’s prefrontal cortex that impact human beings’ executive function and decision-making, and contribute to the cycle of addiction. This could potentially lead to innovative therapeutic strategies for patients suffering from alcohol- and anxiety- or stress-related psychiatric diseases.

While she is new to Binghamton, Varodayan has already achieved significant honors. In the past year, she was awarded Promoting Recruitment Opportunity Diversity, Inclusion and Growth (PRODiG) funding for her research as part of a SUNY initiative to grow faculty diversity in STEM fields. She became the SUNY system’s first Chancellor’s Early Career Scholar in 2020, and also brings with her a multiyear Pathway to Independence grant from the National Institutes of Health, which supports highly qualified postdoctoral researchers as they transition to independent scientists.

She earned her bachelor’s degree in biochemistry and biology and a master’s degree in chemistry at the University of Pennsylvania, followed by a second master’s degree and doctorate in neurobiology and behavior at Columbia University, and a postdoctoral fellowship in neurobiology at Scripps Research.

Science and inclusion

As an educator and mentor, Varodayan emphasizes the importance of creating a diverse classroom and lab environment through both pedagogy and the materials chosen for study. If professors create a welcoming and inclusive setting, student participation will increase — benefiting both the student and the field as a whole.

“The reality is that science has a bit of a reputation for being a very exclusive, male-dominated environment,” Varodayan says.

To address this inequity, she makes sure that students aren’t limited to research that focuses exclusively on males, whether human or animal. Instead, they also read about research that includes female subjects, as well as minority populations, and consider topics such as postpartum depression that directly relate to the female body.

Varodayan’s first year on campus was atypical: She joined Binghamton’s faculty just two months before the coronavirus pandemic sent classes online and canceled much in-person research. As campus reopened, her lab quickly began to make up lost ground, welcoming its first graduate student in the fall of 2020 and its first batch of undergraduate researchers in the spring 2021 semester.

Varodayan particularly enjoys the energy that students bring to a research team, and the opportunity to witness their discovery of “the joy that is scientific research.” Mentorship also benefits her as a researcher: Students will often ask questions that she hasn’t considered herself.

“No one has all of the answers, and I think that that’s a very important thing for everyone to keep in mind,” she reflects. “The only way we can learn and grow as people, as scientists, as professors, as students, is by asking questions and gaining information. That is the key to a mentorship relationship and that is how you gain trust.”

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