My broad research interest is to study how plasticity of the central nervous system occurs during development, disease, and aging. I have specifically focused on studying motor control using translational models of disease, an interest highly influenced by my background as a physical therapist. To me, the neuro-respiratory system is ideal for studying plasticity because breathing and related movements are easily observed and, because this system is critical for life, it has the capacity to express significant plasticity.
I received my Master’s of Physical Therapy from Ithaca College in 2008 and worked as a physical therapist in an acute care hospital for four years, gaining expertise in critical care, orthopedic, and post-stroke therapy. As both a physical therapy student and during the time I spent working, I developed the desire to pursue a career in biological research that directly impacts human medicine and I decided to go back to school to get my Ph.D. In 2012, I entered the Physiological Sciences Graduate Interdisciplinary Program, here at the University of Arizona, and completed my PhD training under the guidance of Dr. Ralph Fregosi in 2017. After this, I accepted an NIH postdoctoral T32 fellowship and joined the laboratory of Dr. David Fuller, affiliated with the department of Physical Therapy and the research team at the Center for Respiratory Research and Rehabilitation at the University of Florida.
In April 2019, I returned to Tucson and the University of Arizona as a postdoctoral research associate, again in Dr. Fregosi’s laboratory. Since then, I have been dedicated to the scientific focus of the lab, studying the effects of nicotine exposure on the development of respiratory motor control. Nicotine is a well-known neuroteratogen that adversely affects brain development through its actions on nicotinic acetylcholine receptors. Nicotinic acetylcholine receptors, which are expressed widely throughout the central nervous system, modulate fast-synaptic transmission and are important for mediating axon grown and synaptogenesis in early gestation. Previous work has shown that nicotine exposure during development results in changes to regions of the brainstem that control breathing and upper airway patency, including the hypoglossal motor neurons which innervate the muscles of the tongue. Changes to hypoglossal motor neurons, such as altered size and nicotinic acetylcholine receptor function, may contribute to obstructive apneas and other tongue control abnormalities that are associated with in utero nicotine exposure. Experiments from both my dissertation work and my postdoctoral work tested the hypothesis that nicotine exposure alters the development of fast-synaptic transmission to the hypoglossal motor neurons, which is a major determinant of the strength of motor output to the muscles of the tongue. Additionally, I tested the hypothesis that nicotine exposure during development alters the function of nicotinic acetylcholine receptors that act to modulate fast-synaptic transmission to hypoglossal motor neurons. For experiments in the lab, I use whole cell patch clamp recordings from hypoglossal motor neurons in a transverse slice of the medulla, and extracellular recordings from the fourth cervical ventral root in the brainstem-spinal cord preparation. All tissue preparations are from neonatal rats in the first week of life obtained from litters born to nicotine-exposed or unexposed dams. Overall, the results from these experiments elucidate specific mechanisms by which nicotine exposure may alter normal function of the respiratory neural network and lead to the breathing and tongue muscle control abnormalities that are observed in infants that are exposed to nicotine in utero.
Along with my research in the lab, throughout my career, I have been committed to community outreach and fostering the next generation of scientists, with a strong commitment to supporting women in STEM, through my service with the American Physiological Society, local volunteer programs, formal teaching, and mentorship of a total of multiple undergraduate researchers. Since being back at the University of Arizona, among other things, I have been involved as a small group leader and the primary mentor for a student in the Undergraduate Biology Research Program (UBRP), I have volunteered for the Southern Arizona Research, Science and Engineering Foundation (SARSEF), I sought and received my Associate Level teaching certificate from the Center for the Integration of Research, Teaching, and Learning (CIRTL), and I had the great honor of being named a 2021 University of Arizona Sursum Fellow, and 2022 Outstanding Postdoctoral Scholar Award Honorable Mention. In addition, I have been planning my future directions and, ultimately, my transition to becoming an independent researcher. My long-term career objective is to obtain a tenure-track faculty position at a Level 1 research institution and establish an extramurally funded research program that is focused on neuroplasticity in respiratory-related neurons. I am currently working to achieve this goal by establishing an independent research program investigating the effects of nicotine withdrawal after chronic exposure on key neural structures involved in the ventilatory response to hypoxia, which is a critical respiratory chemoreflex. Over the past year, I have collected pilot data from this project which, last October, I submitted as an NIH K99/R00 Pathway to Independence award application. If awarded, I will spend significant time training at the University of Chicago and the University of Florida, which will allow me to bring new techniques and expertise to the physiology department here at the University of Arizona.
Dr. Lila Wollman received the Honorable Mention for the 2022 Outstanding Postdoctoral Scholar Award.
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Each month we'll feature a Postdoctoral Scholar and their research, sharing their experiences from the UA, life in Arizona and their research interests.