Although not known for its lushness, Nevada’s plant life offers a world of possibility for researchers in UNLV’s psychological and brain sciences department.
“Take a stroll through many places in Nevada,” says neuroscience Ph.D. student April Contreras, “and you can find cactuses with psychedelic compounds that people have been using expertly for hundreds and thousands of years to heal their people. I think modern science is just catching up.”
Contreras’ research – which she’ll share as part of the virtual component of the Graduate College’s Inspiration, Innovation, Impact event – focuses on the potential of psychedelics in treating psychiatric disorders, integral work as we are in the midst of what she sees as a “mental health crisis.”
An undergraduate alumna of UNLV, Contreras has long called Las Vegas and UNLV home.
“I'm a first-generation Mexican American and [first-generation college] student, so the whole diversity of the campus was a major draw for me,” says Contreras.
“I took an Intro to Neuroscience class, Psychology 303, with Dr. Rochelle Hines, and that's when my world changed,” Contreras says. “I'd never thought that I could be a scientist until I looked into a microscope for the first time and said, ‘Yeah, I can be a scientist,’ and Dr. Hines was significant in helping me realize that.”
Along with Dr. Rochelle Hines, Contreras cites Dr. Dustin Hines as a close mentor.
“They helped me as an undergraduate get some very good research experience,” says Contreras.
Contreras has continued her research with the Hines Group, a specialized UNLV lab headed by Drs. Rochelle and Dustin Hines whose team looks into the effects of psychedelics on brain activity.
Despite the complex nature of her research, Contreras has embraced the challenge of sharing her academic work with those outside her field.
Contreras says, “I think translating your work in a way that can be digestible and accessible to anybody is really important. Preparing for the Inspiration, Innovation, Impact event has been a good exercise for that.”
Contreras has also been practicing her presentation with Kendra McGlothen, fellow Hines Group scientist and winner of the 2020 Rebel Grad Slam: 3-Minute Thesis Competition.
“I think the best way to prepare is with other graduate students in my lab, like Kendra McGlothen,” says Contreras. “She's also going to be presenting at this event, and we’re always bouncing ideas off each other.”
When she’s not in the lab, you can find Contreras out on the trail. She is a founding member of the UNLV Mountain Club, a student group whose goal is to make the outdoors more accessible.
“There are a lot of barriers to getting outside,” says Contreras. “It's expensive. Sometimes you don't know what equipment to bring. Even going on a hike, some people are nervous about doing that. So a big part of the club is empowering people to get outside.”
Whether it's presenting her research or summiting a peak, Contreras’ goal is to welcome others along for the journey.
Of the Inspiration, Innovation, Impact event, Contreras says, “I think it will be a good opportunity to talk about the therapeutic potential of psychedelics and let people know that all the research that's being done is really exciting.”
The Inspiration, Innovation, Impact event features a select group of outstanding graduate students from a variety of colleges giving five-minute, TED-style talks or performances. The year’s applicant pool was so impressive that in addition to the in-person presentations, another group of students have recorded their presentations, which will be available virtually on April 1. The in-person portion of Inspiration, Innovation, Impact will take place on April 1 at 4 p.m. in the Student Union Ballroom. The event is free and open to the public. Learn more and RSVP.