Gabriel Reyes grew up in a poor family — but it wasn’t until he was an undergraduate at Brown University that he decided to pursue the topic that would earn him honors as the winner of TC’s 2020 Student Research Poster Contest, held as part of Academic Festival.

“There’s this idea that hard work doesn’t always translate into what you hoped it would,” Reyes says, recalling his time at Brown. “I would have understood if I was doing poorly because I was procrastinating or not doing my work. But I was really trying hard. And it wasn’t that I was bad at learning.”

Academic Festival Student Research Poster Presentation | Gabriel Reyes

Rather, Reyes says, he was facing barriers that were “very different” than those confronting “someone who is deflective or who went to a private academy like Andover or Exeter.”  

That realization ultimately prompted Reyes to pursue a master’s degree in Teachers College’s program in Neuroscience & Education, where he has worked with faculty members Karen Froud, Director of the College’s Neurocognition of Language Lab, and Kimberly Noble, lead researcher in a national study on how poverty affects brain development.

Reyes says the guidance of Froud and Noble was key to his development of this year’s winning poster, “Scarcity & the Brain: Does Financial Deprivation Affect Learning & Memory in Adolescents?” which offers novel evidence that poverty disrupts reward processing and memory.

He makes no secret of the fact that his motivation for pursuing this line of inquiry is grounded in personal experience.

“Growing up in poverty, I encountered many financial obstacles in pursuit of my own learning,” he said in a video created for the contest’s judges. “There were times when I couldn’t focus in class because I was too hungry or distracted during a test because my parents couldn’t afford the rent that month. Sadly, this is an ongoing problem that affects millions of students of enduring poverty.”

His parents, Mexican immigrants, supported Reyes and his siblings by working in restaurants. The family’s frequent moves between Albuquerque and Denver, and Reyes’ resulting attendance at an estimated 13 elementary and middle schools before reaching 12th grade, only made him hungrier for knowledge.

“I’d run to the book area every time my parents took me food shopping,” he recalled. “They were finding ways to stretch $50; I was trying to solve as many workbook math problems as I could.”

There are still so many questions I want to have answered and so many skills I want to acquire. 

— Gabriel Reyes

Reyes was a sophomore in high school when he enrolled in his first course at the University of New Mexico. By his senior year in high school, he was essentially a full-time UNM student. 

By then, however, an equally studious friend, Xuan Nguyen, who was headed to Amherst College, had convinced Reyes that he, too, could succeed at an elite higher education institution. His main concern, as he wrote his applications on a smartphone, was that he wouldn’t be able to afford the tuition — but he hurdled that barrier by winning a Gates Millennium Scholarship to cover his educational expenses through graduate school.

“My life has really taken a turn for the better because of the Gates Scholarship,” he says. “For the first time I didn’t have to worry about finances.”

It was at Brown that Reyes happened upon Baby’s First Years, the groundbreaking study that TC’s Noble is leading on the link between household income and brain development in young children. That research in many ways inspired the work that formed the basis of his award-winning TC poster. That effort presents “novel evidence to suggest that poverty disrupts reward-processing and memory,” providing support for a theory that “behavioral differences between socioeconomic groups are a result of exogenous factors and not due to an individual’s cognitive ability.”

The poster, Reyes says, represents phase one of a project he’ll continue to pursue in a doctoral program in Computational Neuroscience following his graduation from TC.

“There are still so many questions I want to have answered and so many skills I want to acquire,” says Reyes. “What really excites me is the idea of one day having my own university lab where, like Kim Noble, I can both teach and lead national research.”