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Can’t Sleep? UMBC Researchers Make Eye-Closing Find

Two University of Maryland – Baltimore County (UMBC) biologists, Professor Phyllis Robinson, and her PhD student Preethi Somasundaram have made a timely, pun intended, discovery.

UMBC media reports that the researchers may have increased our ability to understand “biological clocks and associated disorders, such as non-24 and seasonal affective disorder.” The former is a circadian rhythm problem, and the latter a seasonally-triggered depression.

Watch: Campus Life at UMBC

The duo focused on a retinal protein, melanopsin, and how it affects “unconscious vision that regulate the biological clock.” Conscious vision forms images. Unconscious vision does not, but has a critical function.

Cells in our eyes send messages to brain areas that regulate sleep patterns, and Robinson says, “physiological functions from appetite to the ability to do math.”

They pair saw how melanopsin impacts “clock-driven behaviors,” in research animals, and wonder if the protein may someday be modified as a treatment for biological sleep disorders.

Preethi Somasundaram


Somasundaram has a Biotechnology degree from VIT University in India, and received her MS in Applied Molecular Biology, and her PhD in Biological Sciences from UMBC. She has worked in Professor Robinson’s laboratory since 2011.

Professor Phyllis Robinson


Professor Robinson earned her PhD at the University of Wisconsin and was a post-doctoral fellow at Brandeis University.

Robinson is the Program Director of the MARC U* STAR at UMBC program. The name means Maximizing Access to Research Careers Undergraduate Student Training in Academic Research. MARC has produced over 100 PhDs.

MARC U* STAR Scholar and UMBC 2017 Valedictorian: Daniel Ocasio


Daniel Ocasio, a MARC U* STAR Scholar was the UMBC 2017 valedictorian. Ocasio, the first college graduate in his family, received a BS in Chemical Engineering, Summa Cum Laude. He is also UMBC Meyerhoff Scholar (see below), a Barry M Goldwater Scholar, Howard Hughes Medical Institute Scholar, and a recipient of a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship.

Ocasio founded the UMBC chapter of the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers, (SHPE) and will register at the University of California, Berkeley in the fall to pursue a PhD degree in Environmental Engineering.

All about UMBC

The University of Maryland – Baltimore County, an honors university, celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2017. UMBC offers more than 40 undergraduate majors and more than 30 graduate programs, including those in the engineering, science and public policy fields.

UMBC Meyerhoff Scholars Program

Since 1998, when it was created, more than 1,000 students, of all backgrounds, have graduated, after having been nurtured, by the UMBC Meyerhoff Scholars Program. It goal is to counter the low participation rate of minorities in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math-related) fields.

Watch: Strength in Numbers: The Meyerhoff Scholars Program

Watch: Discover Meyerhoff Scholars Program’s Value

In May 2017, New York Times columnist, Frank Bruni, wrote that UMBC has an “almost unrivaled record for guiding African-American undergraduates toward doctorates and other postgraduate degrees in STEM fields.”


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