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. Nice article describing what motivated me to become a scientist, written by the Rita Allen Foundation. Email:  zylka at

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Harper Fauni, B.A., Neurobiology PhD Student

I am from Lakewood, CA, and I obtained my undergraduate degree at Macalester College in Neuroscience and Biology. After college, I was interested in learning about bioinformatics to understand the genetics behind diseases and disorders. To pursue this interest, I became an IRTA at the NIH working under the Undiagnosed Diseases Program, a branch within NHGRI. Under the guidance of Dr. David Adams, I analyzed SNP Chip Sequencing and NGS data to find causal variants for various extremely rare genetic diseases. I also worked on a project that explored finding possible missed variant candidates through read depth comparison among various exome capture kits for resequenced cases. I am interested in using bioinformatic tools to further understand the brain. In the Zylka lab, I am currently trying to find a molecular biomarker for Angelman Syndrome. In my free time, I enjoy designing clothes, going on food adventures, local coffee shop hopping, hiking, kayaking, and rock climbing.

Giulia Fragola, Ph.D., Research Associate 

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.

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Jessica Jimenez, B.A., Toxicology & Environmental Medicine Ph.D. Student

I am interested in exploring the gene-environment interactions that can influence susceptibility to neurodevelopment and neurodegenerative disorders. I received my B.A. in Neuroscience and Biology at Oberlin College where I focused on studying the role of alpha-synuclein in cadmium-induced neurotoxicity in a dopaminergic rat cell model of Parkinson’s disease. To pursue my interest in the environmental impact on neurological disorders, I joined the Curriculum of Toxicology and Environmental Medicine at UNC. My work in the Zylka lab focuses on studying how pesticides and other chemical exposures can influence Autism risk.

Eric McCoy, Ph.D., Research Associate & Lab Manager

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.  (Eric also serves as Laboratory Animal Coordinator and Laboratory Safety Supervisor.) 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

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Baris Oztemiz, B.S., M.O.P., Research Technician

I am interested in the use of novel genetic engineering techniques to study physical and behavioral changes in the nervous system. I am also interested in neuronal cell signaling mechanisms. Before joining the lab, I received a B.S. in Biology and Psychology from Stony Brook University in New York and a Master of Physiology from NC State University, as well as a graduate certificate in Molecular Biotechnology. Currently, I assist on several projects in the lab.

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.

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

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Christina Cobos

I am a junior undergraduate at UNC majoring in Anthropology, and minoring in chemistry and biology. I started in the Zylka lab in Fall 2019, and am currently working on a project whose goal is to quantitatively measure the level of pain exhibited by a mouse through the use of machine learning. (Lab Mentor: Eric McCoy)

Adam Kashlan

I am a sophomore undergraduate student at Georgia Tech majoring in Neuroscience and minoring in Biomedical Engineering. I started my work in the Zylka Lab in the Spring of 2019, and I am currently working on a project to assess, quantitatively, the level of pain exhibited by a mouse through the use of machine learning. (Lab Mentors: Mark Zylka & Eric McCoy)


Joshua Lopez

I am a junior undergraduate at UNC majoring in Neuroscience and Music. I am currently working on a project whose goal is to assess, quantitatively, the level of pain exhibited by a mouse through the use of machine learning. (Lab Mentor: Eric McCoy)

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Alekhyal Majety

I am a freshman undergraduate at UNC majoring in Neuroscience and minoring in Environmental Science. I am currently working on a project whose goal is to asses, quantitatively, the level of pain exhibited by a mouse through the use of machine learning. (Lab Mentor: Eric McCoy)

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Suniti Mohan

I am a junior undergraduate student majoring in Clinical Laboratory Science at UNC. I joined the Zylka Lab in Fall 2019, and am currently working on a project assessing the level of pain shown by a mouse. (Lab Mentor: Eric McCoy)

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Ben Rees

I am a sophomore undergraduate at UNC majoring in Neuroscience. I started in the Zylka lab in Spring 2019 and I am currently working on a project whose goal to determine underlying mechanisms of autism spectrum disorders. (Lab Mentor: Lei Xing)

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

  • Vicki Bartsch, Postdoctoral Fellow in Robert Gereau’s lab at Washington University

Postdoctoral Researchers

  • Alex Tuttle, NIH/NINDS Health Programs Specialist

  • 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, Principal Scientist, KeraNetics

  • Hong Wang, SpecialtyCare Surgical Services