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Neuroscience-biology student expands his BW research to a top-tier R1 university

photo of Juan Pablo Taborda doing researchIt was a breakthrough moment for BW senior Juan Pablo Taborda Bejarano '22 as he took the next step in his research project and traveled to the University of Southern California to focus on the effect consuming artificial sweeteners in childhood has on taste later in life.

For the neuroscience-biology major, it was a pinnacle experience that brought together his four years of undergraduate study with his career goal. It was a journey that started in his hometown of Bogotá, Colombia, and spanned 2,583 miles to BW.

As Taborda Bejarano prepares to graduate in May and attend the Medical College of Wisconsin to pursue a Ph.D. in neuroscience, he is one example of how BW's hands-on approach to research enables aspiring graduate and medical school students to receive acceptance at top universities.

From first-year assistant to co-researcher at R1 school

The prestigious opportunity began his first year at BW when he became a lab assistant for Dr. Clare Mathes, department chair and associate professor of neuroscience. He worked on a project alongside Mathes and neuroscience students Gaurikka Mendiratta '21 and Delenn Hartswick '21 to determine if drinking artificial sweeteners in childhood has an effect on taste-based behavior that lasts into adulthood.

photo of Dr. Clare Mathes and Delenn Hartswick in labUpon the graduation of Mendiratta, who is now in her first year of medical school at the University of Limerick, Ireland, and Hartswick, who is pursuing a Ph.D. in neuroscience at Georgia State University, Taborda Bejarano continued and expanded the research as a BW summer scholar in 2021 and later for independent thesis work.

Through Mathes, he connected with Dr. Lindsey Schier of the department of biological sciences at the University of Southern California, a top-tier research school. Schier's lab focuses on how the chemical constituents of foods and fluids are sensed, processed in the brain and channeled to behavioral outputs. Mathes and Schier, who have similar research interests, have been collaborating since 2018.

Immersion experience into elite graduate-level work

During winter break of this year, Taborda Bejarano traveled to Los Angeles to further his research in Schier's lab. The trip was funded, in part, by an external grant from Nu Rho Psi, the National Honor Society in Neuroscience, which was awarded to Taborda Bejarano. It was a monumental experience both personally and professionally for Taborda Bejarano.

photo of 0Gaurikka Mendiratta lab"My goal for this experience was to learn new techniques and further my real-life experience about how a lab functions. I now know what a research-driven institution looks like," he explained. "My work in the lab of Dr. Schier, our collaborator, was exciting because my objective after graduation is to go to graduate school and continue doing research in a professional manner."

His time in the lab was a success. Not only did it correlate to top-level graduate work and have consequential findings, but Taborda Bejarano will present his research at the national conference of the Association for Chemoreception Sciences this month (with Mendiratta and Hartswick as authors). The team also hopes to submit the work for peer-reviewed publication in a scientific journal.

Research linking artificial sweeteners to changes in taste

Mathes, who studies the link between taste-based physiology and behaviors, is hopeful that Taborda Bejarano's findings could lead to real-world application that can affect dieticians, nutritionists and families.

photo of Juan Pablo Taborda at a conference"A lot of research suggests too much sugar isn't good for kids. It can lead to weight gain and even obesity, increase tooth decay, and it may even contribute to poor attention and memory issues that last into adulthood," stated Mathes.

"Diet beverages, which contain no sugar, get their sweetness from non-nutritive artificial sweeteners. These additives work on taste buds in a way similar to nutritive sugar, so our brain tells us, 'this tastes sweet,'" she said.

"While having kids drink beverages that contain artificial sweeteners prevents them from consuming sugar, we don't know the effects those artificial sweeteners might have later in life when those former children choose for themselves what to eat and drink," Mathes pointed out.

"For example, we wondered what an adult might be more likely to drink if, as a kid, that person only had diet beverages. Our study suggests, at least in a non-human model, that consuming artificial sweetener daily during childhood and adolescence might make fructose seem super tasty once adulthood is reached," continued Mathes.

"Juan's work in Dr. Schier's lab took our behavioral findings a step further as he found that drinking artificial sweeteners daily resulted in decreased levels of one of the elements in taste buds needed to taste sweetness," she noted.

"To put that in human context, this might mean that drinking a lot of artificial sweeteners as a kid might change how their taste buds work, such that when these kids grow up, they like sugar even more," she explained.

"If we look at dietary and nutritional considerations, then perhaps adults who like sugar more than normal would be more likely to consume greater quantities of it and could experience potential detriments like obesity. For families, perhaps the take-home message of this research is that giving kids water to drink instead of diet beverages or sugared drinks might be the safest course of action," she concluded.

Note: According to The Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education®, an R1 school is a doctoral University with very high research activity.

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