Class of 2022: An up-and-coming researcher in cognitive neuroscience
Amalia M. Skyberg worked as a clinical research assistant at the Nathan Kline Institute for Psychiatric Research in New York before arriving on Grounds in 2016 as a first-year Ph.D. student in the Department of Psychology. A magna cum laude graduate of Wake Forest University who majored in biology and minored in chemistry, Skyberg was drawn to UVA by the Department of Psychology’s reputation for a collaborative culture that supports interdisciplinary research.
Eager to research mental health outcomes and the behaviors they produce from a biological perspective, Skyberg found two valuable mentors within the Graduate School of Arts & Sciences in Assoc. Prof. Jessica Connelly and Assoc. Prof. James P. Morris; her work in each of their labs allowed her to develop expertise in cognitive neuroscience, human development and epigenetics (the study of how your behaviors and environment can cause changes that affect the way your genes work.)
Later this summer, after helping to run the second annual UVA Brain Camp — a science camp she founded and co-directed last year for middle-school students from communities underrepresented in STEM fields, with the help of a Jefferson Trust Foundation grant — Skyberg will leave Charlottesville with her recently defended dissertation and Ph.D. degree for a post-doctoral position at the University of Oregon’s Development of Social Neuroscience Lab. She intends to research pubertal, neural and social development in relation to internalizing problems in adolescent girls.
“Collaborations are really important for me, and after having gone through my post-doc interviews, I realize that UVA and the Psychology Department provided me a very unique training experience. Jessica [Connelly] and Jamie [Morris] really set me up for success with a very unique set of skills,” Skyberg said.
Her dissertation focuses on the biological and environmental factors that contribute to the development of social skills needed to form strong social bonds essential for living happy, fulfilling, long lives. Through her research, Skyberg hopes to identify the biological markers that underpin the development of people’s individual variability in social and emotional processing and regulation.
Because of her interest in working with kids, Morris entrusted Skyberg with starting a pediatric program in his lab. She secured a $100,000 pilot grant from the UVA Brain Institute to scan younger kids (from preschool through the early years of elementary school) via magnetic resonance imaging for a study of how the human brain matures during this critical period of development.
“She was the one who really inspired us to start this program of research with kids,” Morris said. “She’s already built a name for herself and has a couple of really great papers coming out from her time at UVA.”
Connelly echoed Morris, calling Skyberg “an amazing scientist with a remarkably tenacious and driven personality.”
“She has a true passion for neuroscience and a strong commitment to mentoring and training the next generation of scientists with a focus on diversity, equity and inclusion,” Connelly said. “She has single handedly brought neuroimaging in young children to UVA, and it has been a pleasure to work with her. …
“She is well on her way to becoming a leader in the realm of mechanistic developmental cognitive neuroscience.”