Campus News

Participating in USC brain development study as a child leads to a future in neuroscience for USC senior

Neuroscience major who joined the USC BrainChild Study at the age of 8 will attend the Keck School of Medicine of USC this fall with the hopes of becoming a physician-scientist.

Hope Hamashige April 25, 2024
Headshot of Charis Alexander

Photo/La Ti Da Studios

When Charis Alexander was eight years old, her parents received a phone call asking if they would participate in a research study conducted at the Diabetes & Obesity Research Institute at the Keck School of Medicine at USC. Charis and her parents discussed it and decided to sign on, even though it required making several visits for tests at USC’s two campuses, a long drive from their home in Beaumont, to go through lengthy physical exams and long periods of answering questions about Charis’s lifestyle and health. 

They weren’t aware of it at the time, but the decision to participate in the study, which focused on the brain development of children born to mothers with gestational diabetes, seems to have set Charis on a path to research the brain herself. Now 18, Charis is graduating from USC with a degree in neuroscience and will attend the Keck School of Medicine of USC in the fall in the school’s MD-PhD program, where she hopes to become a physician-scientist specializing in neuroscience. 

“I think studying neuroscience has been bouncing around in my head ever since my involvement with Dr. Page’s study,” said Charis. “I remember coming to the USC campus when I was little and now, I have been taking many of my classes in the same building where they were doing the research I was involved in.” 

Meeting researchers lit a spark

Headshot of Kathleen Page
Kathleen Page, MD

The study that Charis was involved with is called the BrainChild study and is led by Kathleen Page, MD, associate professor of medicine, co-chief of the division of Endocrinology & Diabetes, and director of the USC Diabetes & Obesity Research Institute. Page, who is also co-director of the research development core at the Southern California Clinical and Translational Science Institute, said the study was created to explore why babies born to mothers with gestational diabetes have a higher risk of developing obesity and diabetes later in life. Page designed a research project, which is still ongoing, that collects data, blood samples, and sophisticated brain imaging over time to determine how the development of children born to mothers with gestational diabetes differs from children born to mothers who don’t develop diabetes during pregnancy. The mothers of the children who participated in the study gave birth at Kaiser Permanente Southern California (KPSC), which recruited subjects for the research project through an ongoing collaboration between Anny Xiang, PhD, and her team from KPSC, and Page and her team at USC. 

The BrainChild studies provide a deeper understanding of how diabetes and obesity can pass from generation to generation. So far, the study has shown that early brain changes may signal a risk for future development of obesity and type 2 diabetes in children exposed to diabetes while still in the womb. The child’s lifestyle–such as diet and physical activity–may either strengthen or weaken these prenatal influences. The ongoing longitudinal study will determine the lasting effects of these early changes and identify targeted interventions to break the cycle of diabetes across generations.

The annual visits that Charis and her family made to USC’s Health Sciences and University Park campuses typically took place over two days. One day was spent with the research team at the Health Sciences Campus where they conducted a metabolic study and asked questions about Charis’s lifestyle. On a separate day, the family went to UPC for Charis’s brain imaging studies. 

I remember coming to the USC campus when I was little,” said Charis. “And now, I have been taking many of my classes in the same building where they were doing the research I was involved in.

Charis Alexander standing in walkway at UPC campus
Charis Alexander at UPC campus

Looking back on some of her earliest visits, Charis remembers the research team members explaining to her and her parents the technology they were using to image her brain and how those images were being used in the research. They talked the family through how they planned to use the blood samples they took, what that would tell them and why it was important for them to understand things like Charis’s diet and sleep patterns. 

Over time, they also talked to Charis and her family about the key findings in their research, what they published and where they were taking their research in the future. The researchers may not have realized it, but these discussions made a very strong impression on young Charis. Not only did she learn that being a researcher was a job, but she found the idea of trying to study something using various research techniques to improve health outcomes fascinating. 

“I did not know what neuroscience was and I didn’t know people could do research as a career and I thought all of it was amazing,” she recalled, noting that even as a child she thought being a doctor might interest her, but she had no idea doctors could also be researchers. “I didn’t understand all of the technology they were talking about, but I understood what I was part of and I thought it was incredible.”

Early exposure to science

Charis sitting at a table with a laptop participatin in the BrainChild Study
Charis participating in a BrainChild Study follow-up visit, 2019

Charis said those hours spent in the laboratory with Page and her research team sparked an interest in science in general and in pursuing neuroscience as a researcher, a career she might not have been exposed to otherwise. 

While her parents always impressed on their children the importance of caring about other people and the community at large, they did not push her toward a particular occupation. And while she had science courses in elementary school, she had no exposure to neuroscience and did not know that scientific research could be an occupation.

Now her parents see that the decision to get involved in Page’s research was a pivotal one for their daughter. 

“We have had so many conversations about this,” said Charis. “The experience was just so positive, but we never could have guessed that this would turn out to be such a great thing for me.”

As a USC neuroscience major, Charis has spent countless hours in the same buildings on the University Park Campus where she had her imaging tests done for the Brainchild Study. This fall, she will move to the Health Sciences Campus, another place where she’ll feel right at home, to pursue her joint MD-PhD degree. 

At the Keck School of Medicine, Charis plans to pursue neuroscience research into how people make decisions and how those decisions are tied to their health. She noted that she was inspired by the vaccination resistance expressed by many people of color at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, a choice with the potential to significantly impact health.

“I really don’t know that any of this would have happened if we hadn’t had that opportunity when I was little,” said Charis. “They say that early exposure to science can influence kids and I definitely think that is what happened with me.”

To learn more about the Keck School of Medicine Neuroscience programs, click here.