Neuroscience Ph.D. Program

Fostering collaboration and creativitythe Neuroscience Ph.D. program at VCU is an opportunity for students to explore a broad range of disciplines related to neuroscience.  

Our uniquely interdepartmental, integrated curriculum provides students with a core of knowledge of the basic structure and function of the central nervous system while allowing flexibility in choosing their advisors, electives and specialized areas of research.  

Students function as independent research investigators after completing their required didactics, and upon graduation will be equipped to conduct independent research and teach in the neuroscience disciplines at a university or academic health center.

A Message from our Director

VCUSOM Message from the Chair

A Message from our Director

The strength of VCU’s interdisciplinary Neuroscience Ph.D. program lies in its flexibility. We encourage students to explore a multitude of fields relating to neuroscience and ultimately pursue research that sparks their interest within any of our participating departments. Ph.D. candidates have the unique opportunity to interact and collaborate with peers and educators across nearly a dozen departments within the School of Medicine, facilitating both academic and social opportunities that enhance their overall learning experience here at VCU.   

The program has had a strong focus on head trauma, drugs of abuse and glial cell biology, and our dedicated faculty and students take pride in shaping the future of neuroscience research.    

John Bigbee, Ph.D.


Supporting our students is at the core of the School of Medicine's mission. We provide a wide variety of resources to help enhance our graduate students' experience and ensure their safety, as well as resources to support our faculty.


We encourage our students to explore a variety of neuroscience research areas before committing to a mentor and a research laboratory. Research groups include: 


  • Drug abuse and mental illness 
  • Glial cell biology 
  • Injury, repair and degeneration 
  • Plasticity and development 
  • Channels, receptors and transporters 
Learn more about our research groups

Students enter doctoral training via the Biomedical Sciences Doctoral Portal, which allows them to remain uncommitted to a department or program until transitioning at the end of the first year of study. Students may choose to concentrate in neuroscience from the beginning or select the doctoral program in neuroscience after exploring opportunities in other departments and programs.

Candidacy exams occur in two parts, typically after the second year for Ph.D. students and the first graduate year for those on the M.D./Ph.D. track. Students should complete both parts by the end of their third-year fall semester, and M.D./Ph.D. students should complete both parts by their second graduate year.

Part One
Students write a mini-review paper and defend it before their graduate advisory committee.

Part Two
In consultation with their advisors, students prepare an NIH-style grant proposal and oral defense before their graduate advisory committee. We strongly encourage students to submit their proposals for extramural funding, such as NIH predoctoral fellowships, when appropriate.



  • Maria Bent
    Thesis Advisor: Jennifer Wolstenholme, PhD
    Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology
  • Belle Buzzi
    Thesis Advisor: M. Imad Damaj, PhD
    Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology
  • Rebekah Frye
    Thesis Advisor: Roxann Roberson-Nay, PhD
    Department of Psychiatry
  • Samantha Gottlieb
    Thesis Advisor: Michael Miles, MD, PhD
    Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology
  • Martina Hernandez
    Thesis Advisor: Audrey Lafrenaye, PhD
    Department of Anatomy and Neurobiology
  • Kijoon Kim
    Thesis Advisor: Peter Hamilton, PhD
    Department of Anatomy and Neurobiology
  • Jyoti Lodha
    Thesis Advisor: Jennifer Wolstenholme, PhD
    Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology
  • Jessica Maltman
    Thesis Advisor: Javier Gonzalez Maeso, PhD
    Department of Physiology and Biophysics
  • Nima Nassehi
    Thesis Advisor: Dana Selley, PhD
    Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology
  • Kelly Platfoot
    Thesis Advisor: Andrew Ottens, PhD
    Department of Anatomy and Neurobiology
  • Joseph Piccone
    Thesis Advisor: Peter Hamilton, PhD
    Department of Anatomy and Neurobiology
  • Vera Purcell
    Thesis Advisor: Jennifer Wolstenholme, PhD
    Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology
  • Chloe Simons
    Thesis Advisor: Pamela Knapp, PhD
    Department of Anatomy and Neurobiology
  • Maya Gaines-Smith
    Thesis Advisor: Javier Gonzalez Maeso, PhD
    Department of Physiology and Biophysics
  • Michelle Taylor
    Thesis Advisor: Kirsty Dixon, PhD
    Department of Surgery
  • Namrata Tiwari
    Thesis Advisor: Liya Qiao, PhD
    Department of Physiology and Biophysics
  • Natalie Truby
    Thesis Advisor: Peter Hamilton, PhD
    Department of Anatomy and Neurobiology
  • Susie Turkson
    Thesis Advisor: Gretchen Neigh, PhD
    Department of Anatomy and Neurobiology
  • Amy Wegener
    Thesis Advisor: Gretchen Neigh, PhD
    Department of Anatomy and Neurobiology


Elizabeth Dustin, PhD
Dissertation title: Unraveling the consequence of adult onset sulfatide depletion: its implications in myelin and axonal heath in the context of neurodegenerative disease

Kelly Flounlacker, PhD
Dissertation title: Effects of HIV-1 Tat and opiates on gene regulation of oligodendrocyte lineage cells: Identification of Myrf as a novel target

Alan Harris, PhD
Currently in the medical phase of the MD/PhD program
Dissertation title: Vulnerability and adaptation of neocortical neuron subtypes after concussive traumatic brain injury  


Yu Tzu (Rita) Chen, PhD
Dissertation Title: TRP to the reward center: muscarinic excitation of VTA dopamine neurons via activation of a non-selective cation conductance

Gladys Shaw, PhD
Dissertation Title: Enduring consequences of chronic repeated stress on neuro-metabolic function

Nicole Weston, PhD
Dissertation Title: The injury-induced neurogenic response and the role of Notch1 in regulating this process

Rory Weston, PhD
Dissertation Title: Role of CLIC4 and the synaptic transcriptome in the behavioral and molecular neurobiology of ethanol


Justin Saunders
Dissertation title: Glucocorticoid receptor dysregulation underlies 5-HT2A receptor-dependent synaptic and behavioral deficits in a mouse neurodevelopmental disorder model

Rudy Toneatti, PhD
Dissertation title: Interclass GPCR heteromerization affects localization and trafficking serotonin 5-HT2A and mGlu2 receptors organization and trafficking


Aaron Barbour, PhD
Dissertation title: KCC2: a novel therapeutic target to rescue GABAergic dysfunction and behavioral deficits induced by HIV and opiate use

Nicole Ekanem, PhD
Dissertation title: Focal augmentation of somatostatin interneuron function and subsequent circuit effects in developmentally malformed, epileptiform cortex

Vishal Patel, MD, PhD
Dissertation title: Recovery from visual dysfunction following mild traumatic brain injury in the mouse is associated with adaptive reorganization of retinal inputs to the lateral geniculate nucleus

Samantha Spencer, PhD
Dissertation title: LPA receptors modulate gene expression during oligodendrocyte differentiation

Rory Weston
Dissertation title: Role of CLIC4 and the synaptic transcriptome in the behavioral and molecular neurobiology of ethanol


Kristen Lee, PhD
Dissertation title: Glial cell mechanisms regulate alcohol sedation in Drosophila melanogaster

Pavel Lizhnyak, PhD
Dissertation title: Enhanced proteomics resolves KCC2 as a novel therapeutic target for traumatic brain injury

Sarah Kim, MD, PhD
Dissertation title: Role of glial CCR5 in mediating HIV-1 TAT and opiate neurotoxicity and behavioral phenotype

Megan Sayyad, PhD
Dissertation title: The role of Syndecan-1 and extracellular vesicles in breast cancer brain metastasis

Tyler Steele, PhD
Dissertation title: Structural determinants of high potency MDPV inhibition of the dopamine transporter


Samantha (Brookins) Benusa, PhD
Dissertation title: Mechanisms regulating axon initial segment stability

Amr Ellaithy, MD, PhD
Dissertation title: Metabotropic glutamate receptor 2 activation: computational predictions and experimental validation

Vinay Idikuda, PhD
Dissertation title: Regulation of HCN channel function by direct camp binding and singlet oxygen

Guoqing Xiang, PhD
Dissertation title: Signaling through homomeric and heteromeric cannabinoid CB1 receptors


Tuoxin Cao, PhD
Dissertation title: Hydrogen peroxide and pharmacological agent modulation of TRPV2 channel gating

Robin Chan, PhD
Dissertation title: Epigenetic editing to validate findings from methylome-wide association studies of neuropsychiatric disorders

Kareem Clark, PhD
Dissertation title: Altered axon initial segment structure and function in inflammatory disease

William Marks, PhD
Dissertation title: The effects of the HIV-1 Tat protein and morphine on the structure and function of the hippocampal CA1 subfield

Nicolas Russell, MD, PhD
Dissertation title: Heme oxygenase 1 expression after traumatic brain injury and effect of pharmacological manipulation on functional recovery

Michel Vascak, MD, PhD
Dissertation title: Structural and functional alterations in neocortical circuits after mild traumatic brain injury


Joyce Balinang, PhD
Dissertation title: Human neural progenitor cells are productively infected by R5-tropic HIV-1: opiate interactions on infection and function involve Cdk5 signaling

Kristen Davis, PhD
Dissertation title: A neural circuit of appetite control in c. elegans

Melissa Powell, PhD
Dissertation title: The role of matrix metalloproteinase 9 and osteopontin in synaptogenesis and reinnervation of the olfactory bulb following brain injury

Natalie (Allen) Wheeler, PhD
Dissertation title: Autotaxin in central nervous system development and disease

Jason Younkin, PhD
Dissertation title: Allosteric effects of g-protein coupled receptor heteromerization: relevance to psychosis


Matthew Baer, MD, PhD
Dissertation title: Elucidating the role of endogenous electric fields in regulating the astrocytic response to injury in the mammalian central nervous system

Shiping (Patrick) Zou, PhD
Dissertation title: Effects of HIV-1 viral protein tat on the viability and function of oligodendroglial cells


Ruturaj Masvekar, PhD
Dissertation title: HIV-1 and opiate mediated neurotoxicity: GSK3beta is a potential therapeutic target

Thomas Taetzsch, PhD
Dissertation title: NF-kB p50: The role of redox signaling and loss of function in dysregulated microglial activation


Ahmad Altarifi, PhD
Dissertation title: Effects of mu opioid receptor agonists on intracranial self-stimulation in the absence and presence of “pain” in rats

Justin Brooks, PhD
Dissertation title: A molecular mechanism regulating the timing of corticogeniculate innervation in dLGN

Julie Chan, MD, PhD
Dissertation title: Osteopontin expression during the acute immune response mediates reactive synaptogenesis and adaptive outcome

John Greer, MD, PhD
Dissertation title: The characterization of the anterograde and retrograde consequences of traumatic axonal injury in a mouse model of diffuse brain injury

Matthew Lazenka, PhD
Dissertation title: THC-mediated induction of delta-fosB and its modulation of CB1R signaling and adaptation

Jiaqiong (Joan) Wang, MD, PhD
Dissertation title: Diffuse traumatic axonal injury within the visual system: implications for visual pathway reorganization


John Campbell, PhD
Dissertation title: The role of calcineurin in dendritic remodeling and epileptogenesis in a rat model of traumatic brain injury

William (Alex) Foxworthy, PhD
Dissertation title: Unique features of organization and neuronal properties in a multisensory cortex

Yun-Kyung Hahn, PhD
Dissertation title: CNS neural/glial progenitors as targets of HIV-1 and opiates: effects on proliferation and population dynamics may alter behavior outcomes

Crystal Lantz, PhD
Dissertation title: Effects of early alcohol exposure on ocular dominance plasticity in mice

Peter T. Nguyen, PhD
Dissertation title: Cannabinoid receptors in the 3D reconstructed mouse brain: function and regulation

Arco Paul, PhD
Dissertation title: Overexpression of serum response factor in astrocytes restore ocular dominance plasticity in a model of fetal alcohol spectrum disorders

Tania Seabrook, PhD
Dissertation title: Circuit development in the dorsal lateral geniculate nucleus (dLGN) of the mouse

Julie Ziobro, PhD
Dissertation title: Characterization and development of a stroke-induced model of acquired epilepsy in organotypic hippocampal slice cultures: role of the cannabinoid CB1 receptors in modulation of neuronal excitation and inhibition


Andrew Bell, PhD
Dissertation title: Age dependent spatial characteristics of epileptiform activity in malformed cortex

Rana El-Danaf, PhD
Dissertation title: Developmental remodeling of relay cells in the dorsal lateral geniculate nucleus (dLGN) of the mouse and the role of retinal innervation

Nisha Nagarkatti, MD, PhD
Dissertation title: Inhibition of the calcium plateau following in vitro status epilepticus prevents the development of spontaneous recurrent epileptiform discharges

Larra Yuelling, PhD
Dissertation title: Autotaxin: a regulator of oligodendrocyte differentiation


Emily Dilger, PhD
Dissertation title: Role of synaptically evoked plateau potentials in retinogeniculate development

Audrey (Forrest) Lafrenaye, PhD
Dissertation title: Focal adhesion kinase, a major regulator of oligodendrocyte morphological maturation and myelination


Sheine Schanuel, PhD
Dissertation title: Heterologous expression and subcellular targeting of the invertebrate FMRFamide-gated sodium channel (FaNaC) in different subtypes of mammalian neurons


Michelle Hoot, PhD
Dissertation title: The effect of chronic constriction injury on cellular systems within nociceptive pathways in the mouse

Jennifer Wolstenholme, PhD
Dissertation title: Behavioral and molecular analysis of individual variation in ethanol drinking


Jonathan E. Kurz, MD, PhD
Dissertation title: Pathological upregulation of a calcium-stimulated phosphatase, calcineurin, in two models of neuronal injury


Katherine Sayers, PhD
Dissertation title: Functional redistribution of hippocampal cannabinoid CB(1) receptors in the rat pilocarpine model of acquired epilepsy


Mary Cage, MD, PhD
Dissertation title: Molecular characterization of mesocorticolimbic brain regions in DBA/2J mice sensitized to the locomotor activating effects of ethanol


Amanda Mower, PhD
Dissertation title: Cyclic AMP response element-binding protein in ocular dominance plasticity

Cristina Falo, PhD


David A. Sun, MD, PhD


Life in Richmond

Urban life with a small-town feel

We encourage our graduate students to maintain a healthy work-life balance, and Richmond is a wonderful place to engage in that well-rounded lifestyle. As the capital of Virginia since 1779, Richmond attracts students, faculty and staff from around the globe. The city’s location affords easy day trips to destinations like Washington, DC, Virginia Beach, Colonial Williamsburg and the Blue Ridge Mountains, among others.

As a mid-sized city with a metropolitan population of 1.3 million, Richmond provides stimulating activities while maintaining its intimate feel and unique vibe. Vibrant neighborhoods offer distinct, diverse experiences, with no shortage of art galleries, museums, music venues, restaurants, breweries and parks. For the outdoor enthusiast, you can’t beat the offerings in the city’s riverfront parks and urban wilderness areas such as white-water rafting, hiking, mountain biking and festivals.

Learn more about our community

The Neuroscience Ph.D. program typically admits five to seven students per year, with financial support including a living stipend plus tuition and fees for the duration of their training 

The application is available through the Biomedical Sciences Doctoral Portal. If you have any questions about the program or application requirements, please contact:

Contact Us

John Bigbee, Ph.D.

Neuroscience Graduate Program Director

Neuroscience Program Director