COVID-19 (coronavirus)

Lab Members


Principal Investigator
Sonja Fenske, PhD
Postdoctoral Scientist

Sonja Fenske, PhD, earned her master’s in biomedical engineering with neurotechnology from Imperial College, London, as a Whitaker International Fellow, and her doctorate in neuroscience from the University of Southern California in 2020. Her thesis focused on brain-based prediction of human chronic pain progression, using resting-state fMRI connectivity and machine learning. Currently, in the Gao Lab, she uses neuroimaging analytical techniques to better understand heterogeneity in early brain connectivity.

Janelle Liu, PhD
Postdoctoral Scientist

Janelle Liu, PhD, earned her doctorate from the University of California, Los Angeles, in 2019. Under the guidance of Mirella Dapretto, PhD, she used neuroimaging techniques and behavioral measures to examine the early structural and functional architecture of the developing brain in infants at high and low risk for autism spectrum disorders (ASD). More specifically, Janelle used resting-state and task-based functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) as well as diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) to investigate the development of language networks across the first year of life. As a postdoctoral scientist in the Gao Lab, she aims to better understand the etiology of neurodevelopmental disorders as well as the impact of environmental risk factors on early brain connectivity. She currently uses neuroimaging techniques and statistical models to examine the complex interplay between various risk factors such as prenatal drug exposure and socioeconomic status, early brain connectivity, and divergent cognitive outcome.

Erin Gallent, MD, PhD
Visiting Postdoctoral Scientist

Erin earned her MD and PhD from the Medical Scientist Training Program at the School of Medicine, University of California, Irvine. She received her doctorate in the department of anatomy & neurobiology at the University of California, Irvine, under the direction of Oswald Steward, PhD. Her thesis focused on identifying and characterizing novel growth and regenerative programs in fully mature adult cortical neurons, and her work resulted in multiple first author publications, over 15 presentations at external conferences, and the procurement of grant funding from both private and government sources. Erin is committed to teaching and mentoring, and while pursuing her graduate studies she also worked as a teaching assistant for undergraduate genetics courses and mentored multiple high school and undergraduate students in the lab. Prior to matriculating at the University of California, Irvine, Erin completed a bachelor of science degree in biochemistry & molecular biology, with minors in mathematics and psychology at Mills College in Oakland, California.

During medical school clinical rotations, Erin discovered her passion for patients in the field of obstetrics and gynecology (OB-GYN). She is committed to improving our understanding of clinical problems at the intersection of OB-GYN and neuroscience; specifically, maternal factors that impact fetal neurodevelopment, fetal neurotrauma, and mechanisms of neural regeneration. Her current postdoctoral position at UCLA/UCI is a direct extension of her graduate work and aims to identify the genetic expression profile of actively regenerating neurons. As a visiting postdoctoral scientist at Cedars-Sinai, Erin is excited to apply her foundational experience in neuroscience and her commitment to women’s health to the HEALthy Brain and Child Development (HBCD) study.

Rachel Marcus
Clinical Research Associate I

Rachel Marcus received her bachelor’s degree in molecular and cell biology with an emphasis in developmental genetics from the University of California, Berkeley, in 2019. She is currently a clinical research associate and the acting study coordinator for the HEALthy Brain and Child Development study for the Gao Lab. Her research interest lies in clinical psychology and its intersection with neuroscience and genetics. She is specifically interested in psychopathology, the study of genetic and environmental effects on development and mental health. She plans to obtain a PhD in clinical psychology to further her knowledge and research skills in the field.

Haitao Chen
Graduate Student

Haitao Chen received his bachelor of science degree at Peking University in Beijing, China in 2018, majoring in electrical engineering. He is currently a PhD student at UCLA, majoring in bioengineering. He is interested in neuroimaging data processing, with a focus on early brain development related to functional architecture using resting-state fMRI. He is currently focusing on functional development in infancy and early childhood, as well as its association with later behavioral outcomes.

Jhelum Paul
Graduate Student Master’s Program

Jhelum Paul completed her bachelor’s in biomedical engineering from Vellore Institute of Technology, Vellore, India, in 2016. She has worked as a programmer analyst on projects which consist of developing codes in Java and angular 2/4 for two years. Jhelum is currently a master’s student in the Master of Science in Magnetic Resonance in Medicine program at the Cedars-Sinai Biomedical Imaging Research Institute, and will graduate in 2020. Her interests include focusing on neuroimaging and development of cognitive functions from birth to early childhood through resting-state fMRIs. Hence, she joined the Gao Laboratory to focus on her master’s thesis on memory and how its connections are developed throughout childhood. Jhelum wishes to continue working on the intricacies of neural development and its complex connectivity in neonatal and how the brain unfolds while growing in the future.

Genesis Flores
Research Intern

Genesis Flores received her bachelor’s degree in psychology from California State Polytechnic University, Pomona (Cal Poly Pomona) in fall 2020. As a research intern, Genesis works on the HEALthy Brain and Child Development (HBCD) study, as well as the COVID-19 and Perinatal Experiences (COPE) study. She plans to pursue a PhD in clinical psychology to better understand the development of brain systems that support socioemotional and cognitive behaviors in typically developing children and those with, or at risk for, neurodevelopmental disorders.

Laurel Gilabert
Research Intern

Laurel Gilabert is currently a fourth-year psychology undergraduate student at the University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC). Her research interests include neural development and neuroscience-informed interventions for treatment-resistant depression. She is particularly interested in the intersection between emotional disorders and the neurological mechanisms that underlie them. She plans to continue her education to obtain a PhD in neuroscience.

Siobhan Glynn
Research Intern

Siobhan is a visiting student from UCLA. She is currently working with the Gao Lab and his team on the HEALthy Brain and Child Development (HBCD) and COVID-19 and Perinatal Experiences (COPE) studies. Siobhan is a first-year graduate student in the developmental psychology program at UCLA. She received her BA in psychology from Bryn Mawr College in 2017. Prior to graduate school, she worked as a research coordinator and lab manager for multiple research networks at the Biostatistics Center at Massachusetts General Hospital. She also worked as an applied behavioral therapist for children on the autism spectrum. Her studies at UCLA will focus on emotion understanding in typically developing young children and young children at risk for autism.

Saba Khan
Research Intern

Saba Khan is currently a second-year undergraduate student at UCLA, studying neuroscience and on the pre-med track. As an intern, her interests in research include data organization and analysis, as well as valuable patient interactions. She is specifically interested in brain development and the study of neurodegenerative diseases and hopes to further her research experience. In addition to her aspiration to be a neurosurgeon, she hopes to empower underserved communities and advocate for educational equity.

Nadia Said
Research Intern

Nadia is currently pursuing a bachelor of science in biology at Cal Poly Pomona. Her research interests include variables that affect maternal stress and how they play a role in infant development. She is also interested in neuropathology and obstetric pathology. Nadia enjoys patient interactions, especially with pregnant women, moms and babies. She likes learning from her peers and working collaboratively with her team. Because of her deep interest in women’s healthcare, Nadia plans to work in obstetrics and gynecology as an MD. This will allow her to reach members of the community who have been lacking proper medical care and services.

Nina Ulyanov
Research Intern

Nina Ulyanov is currently working on completing her bachelor’s in biological sciences at the University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC). She is a research intern in the Gao Lab working in the HEALthy Brain and Child Development study. As an intern she is driven to extrapolate and draw scientific discoveries from valuable data collected from mothers and babies. Her interests in this field include studying newborn and infant susceptibility to neurological stressors. She plans to further continue her education and go into pediatrics.

Contact the Gao Lab

8700 Beverly Blvd.
Biomedical Imaging Research Institute
Los Angeles, CA 90048