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Helping Create New Memories: How One Penn Researcher is Helping us Better Understand the Brain Through Epigenetics

erica korb
Erica Korb, PhD

Growing up in Center City Philadelphia Erica Korb, PhD, an assistant professor of Genetics in the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, had always hoped to return home. While Korb completed her undergrad at Yale University, her PhD in Neuroscience at the University of California San Francisco, and then a postdoc at The Rockefeller University studying chromatin biology, she returned to Philadelphia in 2019. Korb says she was fortunate to find her position given that Penn is a leader in the fields that her lab researches.

As a part of her research at the Korb Lab, Korb strives to understand mechanisms of epigenetic regulation in the brain. Epigenetic regulation — meaning how the world around us impacts gene expression — is essential to the function of neurons in the brain and aides with the creation of new memories, and more.

Using methods such as microscopy, bioinformatics, biochemistry, behavioral testing, and more, Korb and her lab also study the role of histones — which are a group of basic proteins found in chromatin — in neuronal function and in neurodevelopmental disabilities.

In the Q&A below, Korb discussed her research, what inspires her, and what she sees as the greatest opportunities in the field.

What research are you currently undertaking?

Our lab works at the intersection of neuroscience and epigenetics. Epigenetics, in its broadest sense, explores how our environment can change the expression of our genes. Epigenetics is incredibly important in the brain and contributes to the creation of new memories, our ability to adapt to our environment, and to the development of neurological disorders. We have a number of different projects in the lab, ranging from studying specific epigenetic regulators linked to memory formation, to studying epigenetic disruptions that lead to disorders such as Autism Spectrum Disorder.


What inspired you to do the research you’re driving?

When I started working in labs as an undergrad, I knew I liked science but didn’t have much of an idea of what doing “research” really meant. One of the first times I looked under a microscope at neurons, I remember being in total awe. Not only are neurons beautiful cells, but at the time we were trying to understand how a specific protein was regulated in neurons. I remember looking at this protein under the microscope and seeing it perfectly colocalize (when two proteins are found at the same location) with another protein and having a moment where I realized I was the only person in the world who had ever seen that. The process of discovery, as hard as it often is, is truly exciting and motivated me to pursue a career in this field.

What are the biggest challenges you face as a scientist? Where do you see the greatest opportunities?

The brain is an incredibly complex system that can be challenging to study. It’s made of numerous different types of cells that communicate and are interconnected in complex ways. Not only does this make it difficult to understand the brain as a whole, but many of these cells can be difficult to isolate or work with. Fortunately, this is an incredibly exciting time to be working in both the fields of neuroscience and epigenetics. There are constantly new techniques and tools being developed that have allowed us to make great strides into our understanding of the role of epigenetic regulation in the brain.

We also are entering a stage of collaborative science, where people with very different skills and expertise help to work on a difficult problem together. I hope that with the combination of new technology and joining of different labs to tackle challenging questions, we’ll be able vastly improve our understanding of the brain in the coming years.

Are there any upcoming collaborations that you’re looking forward to?


I’ve been really fortunate to work with a group of Penn faculty on a SARS-CoV-2 related project. We’re examining a poorly understood protein encoded by SARS-CoV-2 and its role in disrupting host-cell epigenetic regulation. We’ve gotten to work with Drs. Susan Weiss, Shelley Berger, Ben Garcia, and Ed Morrissey, and learned an incredible amount in the process. It’s been challenging to learn a new field since we are primarily a neuroscience lab but it’s also been incredibly rewarding to have the chance to work with experts and contribute to our understanding of this virus.

What went into getting your lab started as a new faculty member?

Starting a new lab is a lot of work but also a ton of fun. Penn has been an amazing place to do this since all of our lab neighbors and the faculty in our department have been incredibly generous with their time and expertise. Of course, we’re certainly not done building the lab and we are always looking for interested postdocs, students, and techs to join our team.


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