Colin Powell School
Alyssa DeStefano: Combining Psychology and Biology to Build a Career in Neuroscience Research
Salutatorian Alyssa Destefano will graduate with a Bachelor of Science degree in psychology and a minor in biology. She began her studies as a pre-med major but changed her focus to research after realizing she felt deeply passionate about neuroscience, inspired in part by her brother, who was born with a rare neurodevelopmental disorder. Over the past three years of interning at the New York State Institute for Basic Research in Developmental Disabilities (IBR), DeStefano developed an interest in conducting research with infants at risk for developmental delays. This research inspired her Psychology Honors Thesis, which was funded by the 2021 CCNY Opportunities in Research and Creative Arts (ORCA) Fellowship. Through her coursework at CCNY, DeStefano continued to develop her passion for neuroscience and sought out more related research experiences. Outside of the classroom, she has also volunteered with El Centro del Inmigrante and Project Hospitality. After graduating, DeStefano will attend the Cognitive and Behavioral Neuroscience PhD Program at the CUNY Graduate Center. She hopes to develop neuroimaging strategies for earlier identification of Autism Spectrum Disorder in infants. Her career goal is to conduct developmental neuroscience research assessing the neural mechanisms underlying developmental disorders.
Please tell us a little about your background. Where are you from?
I am a Staten Islander who was born in Brooklyn, which is the typical origin story for Staten Islanders. I am a mix of Italian, Puerto Rican, Irish, and French Canadian. I’ve always enjoyed seeking out diversity in thought and culture (especially food). I also have always felt strongly about public service. This sense of service pushed me to volunteer throughout high school, and I graduated with the President’s Gold Award for Volunteer Service, which was a real honor for me. I continued this work in college and, during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, in a food pantry with El Centro del Inmigrante.
What brought you to City College?
When choosing a college, I wanted a university that would allow me to explore my identity and academic aspirations while participating in a diverse community. I chose CCNY for the rigorous academic curriculum offered and the diverse community of students, staff, and faculty.
What is your passion or purpose behind pursuing what you did at City College?
I am very lucky to have an older brother who is blind with a neurodevelopmental disability. He is a constant source of inspiration for me. Even as a young girl, I was eager to learn about his neurodevelopmental disability and excited about how I would improve the quality of life for those with neurodevelopmental disabilities. Studying psychology at CCNY was an obvious choice for me.
How has your career unfolded, and how did the Colin Powell School help you along the way?
I originally was a pre-med student when I began CCNY. I really enjoyed my psychology courses and began interning at an infant development lab at the New York State Institute for Basic Research in Developmental Disabilities the summer following my freshman year. I’ve continued working in this lab since and am now working on my Psychology Honors Thesis with Professor Sarah O’Neill. I received grant funding from CCNY’s Opportunities in Research and Creative Arts (ORCA program) over the summer of 2021 for my thesis.
After taking neuroscience classes with Professor Jon Horvitz, I knew neuroscience was my passion. I became excited about the translational aspect of applying neuroscience to study neurodevelopmental disabilities. In the second semester of my junior year, I began working more closely with Dr. O’Neill and the Attention and Neuropsychological Development (ATT&ND) lab and sought out a neuropsychology research position at Hunter College with Dr. Tracy Dennis. Because of these experiences and my professors’ encouragement, I felt ready to apply to PhD programs in neuroscience and psychology. I will attend the CUNY Graduate Center Behavioral and Cognitive Neuroscience PhD program in the fall and work with Dr. Kristina Denisova, who studies infants at risk for Autism Spectrum Disorder using neuroimaging and neurocognitive measures. I am excited for what the future holds.
Do you have any significant memories or accomplishments from your career or time at City College that you would like to talk about?
Submitting my Psychology Honors thesis proposal was a big deal for me. I began my thesis in the spring semester of 2021, which marked one year in the pandemic. At the time, I was taking care of my brother while my parents worked. I am proud of myself for accomplishing that milestone in a time when everything else around me felt as though it was falling apart. My work kept me grounded throughout the pandemic, and I am so thankful to have had such supportive professors and classmates.
Do you have any advice you could give to current or future students?
My best advice would be to channel your perseverance. Find what you’re passionate about and go for it, even if it seems impossible. Talk to your professors and advisors about your passions and ask for their advice. Seek out related experiences and let your enthusiasm show all the time. As Roald Dahl once said, “If you are interested in something, no matter what it is, go at it full speed. Embrace it with both arms, hug it, love it, and above all become passionate about it. Lukewarm is no good.”