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Francelina Morillo, '10
In her teens, Francelina Morillo’s father died suddenly of a brain tumor. This tragedy drove Morillo to want to understand the “hows” and “whys” of her father’s death. As a UAlbany undergraduate, Morillo has used her University experience to pursue this quest. Now, as a senior, she is beginning to find some of the answers as she conducts innovative scientific research on the brain and language functions.
“My father’s neurosurgeon had such a powerful impact on me,” said Morillo, a dual psychology and biology major from Queens. “Now, I want to be that person, that doctor who tries as hard as possible because I know I’d always see my father in my own patients. UAlbany has put me on a path to do that.”
Morillo was first exposed to the nuances of research in UAlbany’s Center for Neuroscience Research under Psychology Professor Christine Wagner. There, Morillo learned different techniques and procedures, including how to mount tissue for experiments examining the effects of maternal hormones on offspring.
Inspired by Morillo’s strong aptitude for scientific research, psychology professor Jeanette Altarriba invited Morillo to join her Cognition and Language Laboratory as a research assistant. Altarriba mentored Morillo’s most current research on the tip-of-the-tongue (TOT) phenomenon – an instance when an individual knows a word, but cannot immediately recall it.
“Certain words increase or decrease the frequency of TOT. It’s significant for people having problems with speech or who’ve experienced some type of dramatic event to the brain,” said Morillo, a native of the Dominican Republic. “When language is re-introduced to them, the use of certain types of words will help them more.”
In conducting the research, Morillo began advancing her own ideas on the phenomenon, leading to the addition of new variables in TOT experiments. Morillo believes gender plays a role, noting that males seem to be more susceptible to TOT for abstract words like “freedom.” She is working on a manuscript for publication in top-tier language journals and has already presented some of her research at a national conference in Buffalo.
“Her level of maturity, intellectual curiosity and enthusiasm for science is inspiring,” said Altarriba. “She’s already thinking like a scientist.”
Morillo equates it more to playing detective – someone trying to find the pieces of the puzzle on how the brain works. Her father’s passing has made her research and career path much more purposeful.
“It sounds cliched, but I want to make the world a better place. I want to inspire other people like myself, who’ve faced adversity and persevered and continue to pursue their dreams,” said Morillo, who is applying to the MD/PhD programs at Yale and Harvard.