Department of Psychology
Department of Psychology

Fall 2019 Newsletter — Faculty Spotlight: Assistant Professor Caitlin Orsini

Wed, December 11, 2019
Fall 2019 Newsletter —  Faculty Spotlight: Assistant Professor Caitlin Orsini
Assistant Professor Caitlin Orsini

We welcome Dr. Caitlin Orsini, who joined the UT Psychology Department as assistant professor this semester.



We are delighted to introduce Dr. Caitlin Orsini, who joined our faculty this past fall as assistant professor in the Behavioral Neuroscience Area. She is also appointed to UT’s Waggoner Center for Alcohol and Addiction Research. Dr. Orsini comes to us directly from completing her postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Florida. She received an M.S. and PhD. at the University of Michigan prior to that, both in Biopsychology. She received her B.S. in Psychology with a Behavioral Neuroscience concentration from Washington College in Chestertown, MD, graduating summa cum laude and valedictorian.

She is also a long-distance runner who competes in races several times a year with her brother. She grew up in Maryland, is the oldest of 5 siblings, and says she has the cutest dog and cat (but admits she is obviously biased).

Please tell us about your research.

Broadly, my research focuses on understanding the behavioral and neurobiological mechanisms underlying decision making and how it is altered in psychiatric diseases. More specifically, I am interested in how chronic use of stimulants and opioids affect risk-based decision making. Indeed, individ­­­­­­uals with a history of substance use exhibit elevated risk taking and impulsive choice, both of which can contribute to the persistence of drug use and/or relapse after prolonged abstinence. My research uses rodent models of drug use and decision making to investigate how and why such changes in decision making occur after substance use, with the goal of developing strategies to treat this behavioral deficit and, ultimately, drug use itself. 

What is the most unique or interesting facet of your research or its findings?

I believe the most important aspect of my research is the focus on the interaction between decision making and substance use and how this differs between males and females. There is a rich history of research focused on the behavioral and neurobiological mechanisms underlying drug seeking and craving in male and females, which has had a major impact on the field. We are only beginning, however, to understand how complex cognitive functions become compromised after substance use and how these alterations may be sex-dependent. My research is unique in that it examines this specific aspect of substance use by employing techniques that allow for monitoring and manipulating brain activity in real time concurrently with behavioral assessments of decision making.

Why is this work important? Whom will it effect?

Substance use disorders are chronic debilitating diseases and they have only been increasing over the last few years. As a striking example, the number of overdose fatalities due to synthetic opioid use (e.g., fentanyl) nearly doubled from 2015 to 2017. Furthermore, females are more prone than males to various aspects of substance use, such as relapse. Consequently, a better understanding of how drugs such as opioids impact decision making and how this may differ between males and females may be paramount for developing effective strategies to treat these cognitive deficits, in addition to those more directly associated with drug seeking.

What drew you to this field?

I was initially drawn to the field of behavioral neuroscience because I was (and still am) fascinated by human behavior and why we do the things we do. Learning that we could begin to tease apart how the brain controls behavior had a profound impact on me as an undergraduate and still, to this day, is a compelling force in driving my research.

What are some common misconceptions people have about your field?

Perhaps the most common misconception people have in the behavioral neuroscience field is the fact that females are too variable and too complicated to be of any use in neuroscience research. Consequently, the field has mostly used males in their studies. If the goal is to better understand the neuroscience of mental health, however, we cannot restrict our study, and subsequent therapy development, to just 50% of the population. Fortunately, this imbalance has been a major focus of the National Institutes of Health by mandating that sex must be included as a biological factor in grant proposals. My own research also focuses on sex differences in decision making and how they relate to psychiatric diseases such as substance use and I plan to disseminate these findings to help rectify this fallacy that has long been entrenched in our scientific training.

What aspect of your work do you enjoy most?

The most enjoyable and rewarding part of my job is working with aspiring undergraduate and graduate students. I discovered my passion for education and science through working with amazing mentors throughout my career and my hope is that I can impact students in the same way those mentors affected mine.

What made you interested in coming to UT and how are you finding it here?

The decision to join UT as a faculty member was a very easy one for me. The academic atmosphere is collegial and welcoming and my colleagues, who are spread across several Departments and Centers, are kind and generous with their mentorship and resources. The opportunities for collaborations are numerous, which I know will be essential in cultivating intellectual growth and creativity. Even though I have only been here for a few months, I already feel valued as a faculty member. I am excited to begin my career as a faculty member and I believe that UT Austin is the perfect place for me to do so.



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