Mark J. Zylka, Ph.D., Director, UNC Neuroscience Center

W.R. Kenan, Jr. Distinguished Professor
American Association for the Advancement of Science Fellow

I received my B.S. in Biochemistry from Virginia Tech, spent three summers at the NIH as an IRTA student in Dr. David Klein’s lab and then completed my Ph.D. in Neurobiology from Harvard.  While in graduate school with Dr. Steven Reppert, my colleagues and I identified several of the core circadian clock genes and determined at a mechanistic level how these genes contribute to circadian rhythms in mammals.  I then did my postdoctoral work at Caltech in Dr. David Anderson’s laboratory.  While at Caltech, I co-discovered a large family of G protein-coupled receptors called Mrgprs that are found in sensory neurons of rodents and humans.  I greatly enjoy breaking new ground and researching how to treat pain and autism with the talented group of people you see below.  Email:  zylka at

Vicki Bartsch, B.S., Cell Biology & Physiology Ph.D. Student

I graduated from Roanoke College in 2010 after studying lobster physiology in the context of exercise and bacterial infection.  I then worked at Virginia Commonwealth University, researching the genetics of alcohol tolerance using C. elegans as a model.  I started in BBSP in the fall of 2012 and joined the Zylka lab the following spring, where I am now studying pain signaling.  Chronic pain is a prevalent and debilitating condition for which we currently lack effective treatments.  Our laboratory has identified a class of lipid kinases that are found at high levels in the peripheral pain-sensing neurons.  Through my research I am characterizing how these lipid kinases contribute to pathological pain sensitivity on the molecular, physiological, and behavioral levels.  In my free time, I enjoy sewing and playing with my dogs.  Publications.  Email:  brings at

Giulia Fragola, Ph.D., Postdoctoral Fellow 

My work in the Zylka lab focuses on the identification of molecular mechanisms that regulate UBE3A levels in neurons.  Alterations in UBE3A gene dosage in the brain result in severe intellectual diseases such as Angelman syndrome and autism, therefore restoring UBE3A to endogenous levels represents a possible treatment strategy.  I am also studying the function of Topoisomerase 1 (TOP1) in the central nervous system.  The Zylka lab found that inhibition of DNA topoisomerases reduces the expression of long genes in cortical neurons.  Many of the synaptic genes that are disrupted in autism are significantly longer on average than all genes expressed in cortical neurons.  This observation suggests that impairing the expression of long genes may affect brain development and/or function.  Publications.

Eric McCoy, Ph.D., Research Associate & Lab Animal Coordinator

The somatosensory system receives and interprets sensory information about the surrounding environment from many different body regions, i.e. skin, organs, and muscles.  These signals convey important information about thermosensation, mechanosensation, itch and nociception.  One important structure that transmits these signals is the dorsal root ganglion (DRG).  The DRG receives signals in the periphery and transmits the signal to the spinal cord and then on to higher order brain regions.  By manipulating the neurons and signals of the DRG, we are able to examine the underlying mechanisms of painful (nociceptive) stimuli.  Therefore, my research studies utilize animal models to understand how modulation of DRG neurons can alter painful behavior.  In addition, my research examines how these pathways may play an active part in temperature detection and temperature regulation.  Publications.

Helen Mao, PhD

Helen Mao, Ph.D., Postdoctoral Fellow

My research interests lie in mammalian brain development during both embryonic and postnatal stages, with an emphasis on how cellular and molecular abnormalities during these early stages contribute to the pathogenesis of neurodevelopmental disorders. I received my PhD at Duke University under the advisement of Dr. Debra Silver, wherein my thesis work focused on the role of posttranscriptional regulatory mechanisms in the modulation of embryonic neurogenesis.  In the Zylka lab, I currently working on elucidating the cellular and molecular basis of brain malformation and behavioral deficits in Angelman Syndrome, with the long-term goal of identifying therapies that can ameliorate the pathophysiological and behavioral defects associated with this disease. Publications.

Jesse Niehaus, B.S., Neurobiology Ph.D. Student

I am originally from Cincinnati, Ohio and received my B.S. in Neuroscience from the University of Cincinnati in 2013. After graduation I spent two years in a lab at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital examining the molecular mechanisms of spinal cord development and injury. I additionally worked in a neighboring lab studying the genetics behind hydrocephalus.  I began BBSP at UNC in the Fall of 2015 and joined the Zylka lab the following Spring under the Neurobiology curriculum.  My research is focused on studying circuitry involved in pain transmission using single cell sequencing approaches.  Publications

Gabriela Salazar, B.S., Lab Manager & Research Technician

I am in charge of insuring smooth operations within the lab and overseeing most of the routine tasks there.  I also contribute to a project involving screening the EPA Toxcast library and drug libraries for transcriptional effects in cortical neuron cultures.  Publications.

Jeremy Simon, Ph.D., Research Assistant Professor

Proper coordination of gene expression programs shapes cellular identity.  I am interested in how genetics and the environment both establish and perturb gene expression during development and in disease.  We use a variety of high-throughput sequencing-based approaches to study gene expression and regulation, and I integrate these data computationally to better understand the complex biology of several diseases, including Autism Spectrum Disorders, neurodegeneration, Crohn’s Disease, and cancer.  Further, I am interested in applying novel screening approaches to identify potential therapeutics that revert disease-associated gene expression programs to a normal state.  I joined the lab in 2014 after completing my Ph.D. in the BCB program at UNC-Chapel Hill, where I studied chromatin dysregulation in cancer.  Outside of lab, I enjoy cooking, brewing beer, and playing music.  Publications.

Bonnie Taylor-Blake, B.S., Research Specialist

As an undergraduate in Zoology at UNC, I began work in the Department of Cell Biology & Physiology with Ed Perl and never wanted to leave.  Since joining the Zylka lab in 2006 my principal role has been to perform histology and to image many types of tissues, including dorsal root ganglia, skin, spinal cord, and brain.  My work has been featured in many of the studies published from the Zylka lab and has won awards.  When not sectioning or staining, I enjoy researching folklore, linguistics/lexicography, and helping to solve, as William Safire put it, “the most prominent etymological riddle of our time.”  Publications.

Alex Tuttle, Ph.D.

Alex Tuttle, Ph.D., Postdoctoral Fellow

I received my B.S. in Psychology at Haverford College, where I first became interested in pain research working with Dr. Wendy Sternberg.  After graduation, I spent two years study cell cycle mechanisms in pancreatic beta cells in Dr. Jake Kushner’s lab at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia before deciding to return to the pain field. Working with Dr. Jeffrey S. Mogil I obtained my Ph.D. in Psychology at McGill University.  During my time at McGill I designed a novel behavioral assay looking at prolonged social behaviors in mice as a way to study how pain and stress activation modulate social interaction. Working in the Zylka lab I intend to continue developing new and more etiologically relevant assays in the pursuit of identifying new autism models.  Publications.

Justin Wolter, PhD

Justin Wolter, Ph.D., Postdoctoral Fellow

I am broadly interested in mechanisms of genetic regulation, both at the transcriptional and post-transcriptional levels, and how these mechanisms direct brain development and nervous system function. I completed my PhD in the lab of Marco Mangone at Arizona State University, where I studied the evolution of microRNA targeting. In the Zylka Lab I am studying signaling pathways linked to autism and Ube3a, a gene linked to autism and Angelman syndrome. Publications.

Lei Xing, Ph.D., Research Scientist

I received my B.S. in Biochemistry at Nankai University in China and a Ph.D. in Biochemistry, Cell and Developmental Biology at Emory University where I worked with Dr. Gary Bassell studying mRNA localization and translational regulation. I am currently a Research Scientist working jointly in the Zylka and Snider labs. I am interested in neutral circuit development and how its abnormalities contribute to the pathogenesis of neurodevelopmental disorders. I am a recipient of the Children's Tumor Foundation Young Investigator Award. Publications:

Undergraduate Research Assistants

Dana Metzger

I am a Junior double-majoring in Biology and Spanish, with a minor in Chemistry. I've been with the Zylka lab since my freshman year, beginning as a lab assistant. I am now helping to investigate how certain genes are involved in brain postnatal development and neurodegeneration.

Lab Alumni

Graduate Students

  • Brittany Wright Schuck, Scientific Reviewer, Food & Drug Administration
  • Joe Rittiner,  Postdoctoral Fellow, Duke University
  • Meagen Voss, Science & Technical Editor and Programmer, Voss Editing & Coding Services
  • Nate Sowa, Psychosomatic Medicine Fellow, University of Washington-Seattle
  • Samuel Snider, Clinical Fellow in Neurology, Mass General Hospital
  • Jaeda Coutinho-Budd, Assistant Professor, University of Vermont, Burlington

Postdoctoral Researchers

  • Lipin Loo, Research Fellow at the University of Sydney
  • Smita Paranjape, Postdoctoral Scholar, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
  • Jason Yi, Assistant Professor, Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis
  • Angela Mabb, Assistant Professor, Georgia State University
  • Brandon Pearson, Assistant Professor, Columbia University
  • Ian King, Assistant Professor and Clinical Medical Geneticist, University of Toronto
  • Sarah Shoemaker, Mentorship & Research Coordinator, NC School of Science & Mathematics
  • Sarah Street, Medical Student, UNC Chapel Hill
  • Paul Kullman, Research Assistant Professor, University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine
  • Julie Hurt, Principle Scientist, KeraNetics
  • Hong Wang, SpecialtyCare Surgical Services