Research and Creativity Expo: Nicole Centazzo ’19 Aspires to Use Science to Help Communities

Research and Creativity Expo: Nicole Centazzo ’19 Aspires to Use Science to Help Communities

Research and Creativity Expo: Nicole Centazzo ’19 Aspires to Use Science to Help Communities

The 2019 Research and Creativity Expo is coming up on May 1-10. To get our community excited about the student presentations that will be featured at the Expo, we’re speaking to several student presenters, finding out more about their research, and learning about their hopes for the future. At John Jay, research is a key element of our mission to educate for justice, because evidence-based data and thoughtful analysis opens minds and helps communities build a more just society. Our next student presenter is Nicole Centazzo ’19, a Program for Research Initiatives in Science and Math (PRISM) student and Forensic Science major from Maniago, Italy, who will be presenting her research on the effects of synthetic drugs on the body.

Can you tell us a little bit about your project?
My project seeks to determine the effects of new synthetic drugs, like bath salts, on the brain. We’re using rats’ brains to analyze these effects. We want to see how these drugs impact the body and the neurotransmitters in the brain. Does it increase dopamine? How does it distribute in the body? And for drug abusers, does it affect the brain in a certain way and how can we treat it? It’s important to know these things, because this knowledge gives forensic pathologists a window of when a person died and whether the drug was really the cause of death. 

“The lack of women in the field—or in my class—never deterred me from studying science. Instead it served as a confidence boost and pushed me to demonstrate that women belong in the scientific community.” — Nicole Centazzo

What brought you to this topic?
For as long as I can remember, I’ve always liked science—specifically, forensic science and toxicology piqued my interest because it’s like putting a puzzle together. You have your chemistry factor, because you need to know how these drugs are made and what their structures are. Then there’s a psychological and physiological component that comes into play because you learn how it impacts the body. Science envelops all of those factors. Your job as a scientist is to figure out which pieces fit where and solve that intricate puzzle.

Tell us about your experience in PRISM and what it’s like being a woman in the field of science?
PRISM has been amazing. My mentor is Professor Marta Conchiero-Guisan, Ph.D., and she’s like a mother to me. She has helped me so much during my time with PRISM and during my research process as well. I was raised in Italy, and back home they are very conservative. People don't usually leave their hometown to find a job. Women don’t usually pursue careers in science. In fact, in Italy, out of the 100 students in my class, only seven were female. The lack of women in the field—or in my class—never deterred me from studying science. Instead it served as a confidence boost and pushed me to demonstrate that women belong in the scientific community.

What were the most challenging aspects of conducting this research? 
At the beginning of the research process, the toughest part was familiarizing myself with the different instruments I was using and the new vocabulary. It’s a lot of science talk so getting deep into it can be hard. Then, once the research process got going, the challenging part was getting good results. You need a lot of accuracy and a lot of repetition in this kind of research, so if you’re distracted, even for just a second, it can prolong the research process. And then, you can’t mess up on the next try, because you only have a limited number of authentic samples.

What have you learned about yourself throughout the research process?
I’ve learned that I have more patience than I originally thought. I spent some time trying to decide between going for my Ph.D. or going to med school. I tried research and found that I actually enjoy it. I find peace of mind during the research process, there is routine and structure, which allows me to focus on what I’m doing and leads to solve the problem at hand.

“If we can provide scientific data that says, ‘these are the communities that are most impacted by this drug problem,’ then its research that is helpful on a social justice and community level.” — Nicole Centazzo

As a College focused on justice, how does your research help you move the needle forward, justice wise?
The goal of my first research project was to analyze the use of drugs in New York City’s five boroughs and see where certain drugs were most abused. That research was very important from a justice standpoint. If we can provide scientific data that says, “these are the communities that are most impacted by this drug problem,” then its research that is helpful on a social justice and community level. With this current research project, our ultimate goal is to help people. If we can prevent the issues that synthetic drugs create in certain communities, then we help society. The collaboration between justice and science is very important as it makes way for better understanding and a greater sense of community. John Jay gives us the opportunity to connect the two. My goal is always to work toward solving the scientific puzzle and figuring out how it can help others.

You mentioned you were raised in Italy.  What was it about John Jay that made you want to come here?
One of my mom’s colleagues was an FBI forensic psychologist. When I learned of her experience with the FBI, I asked her if she could do it all over again, what would she have done differently in her career. She said she would have gone to John Jay CollegeHere was this successful woman and her single regret was that she missed out on a John Jay education. So of course, that piqued my interest and I immediately started looking into the College and learned it has one of the best Forensic Science programs in the U.S., and it’s a public school, too. It was perfect for me—class-wise, community-wise, it’s in New York City, there's a lot of diversity here and I just wanted to have that experience.

Where do you see yourself in five to ten years?
I see myself being a med-school graduate and working in a lab somewhere in the U.S. I’m not picky about what city I’m working in, so long as I’m learning and helping the community.

What has the Research & Creativity Expo experience done for you?
It’s helped me see where the opportunities for connection and creating a sense of community exists through scientific research. Presenting and learning about other projects allows you to connect different disciplines and share something that can benefit many people and not just the science community.

“It’s because of John Jay College, and its willingness to bring the justice and science fields together, that I have been able to learn and experience so much.” — Nicole Centazzo

Can you finish this sentence for me? If it wasn't for John Jay...
I wouldn't be the person that I am today. It’s because of John Jay College, and its willingness to bring the justice and science fields together, that I have been able to learn and experience so much. Very few institutions would have given me this opportunity. 

To learn more about this presentation and others, come to the Research and Creativity Expo  from May 1-10.