Happy 25th Anniversary, Neuroscience Program

My passion as an administrator stems from my passion as a scientist. I am here at Trinity College because of what my education and my career, specifically my liberal arts training in science, sparked in me — a desire to make a difference in the world and to give back.

A liberal arts college is a wonderful place to carry out a scientific career. As a neuroscience professor at a liberal arts college, I could focus on scientific questions that motivated me and on the quality (rather than quantity) of work that I produced. Also, my colleagues in related scientific fields were just doors away and eager to collaborate, and I had lots of brilliant, dedicated undergraduates eager to work in my lab. As I reflect on my own experiences as an undergraduate in the sciences at a liberal arts college, I remember the opportunity of working closely with a faculty member and the excitement of having my first taste of the joys and frustrations of real experiments. Not surprisingly, I feel a deep connection to Trinity’s neuroscience program, which was among the first in the country at a liberal arts college and which this year celebrates its 25th anniversary (see story on page 10).

Trinity College has seen an increasing number of students choosing neuroscience as a major. A decade ago, about 1.7 percent of Trinity graduates pursued a neuroscience major. This past May, for the Class of 2015, that figure jumped to 5.2 percent, compared with 4.6 percent of graduates with a mathematics major, 3.1 percent with biology, 3.1 percent with engineering, 1.1 percent with chemistry, and 0.6 percent with physics. In other words, neuroscience is the largest STEM major at Trinity.

Neuroscience is an interdisciplinary science. Here at Trinity, neuroscience includes philosophy, psychology, chemistry, biology, and other disciplines. Regardless of the department, we can come together to collaborate, to study critical questions about the mind, brain, and nervous system. This breadth is unusual in a neuroscience program at a liberal arts college.

In my own research lab prior to coming to Trinity, I learned that the ability to collaborate — to consider many points of view and varied vantage points in an effort to conquer the world’s largest challenges — is just one of an enormous set of skills that successful scientists must possess. Now that I am an administrator, I realize that many of those same skills will help our graduates become successful in whatever line of work they choose to pursue.

What are those skills?

In addition to collaboration, successful scientists must focus broadly and use a variety of techniques to answer BIG questions that lead to truly meaningful discoveries. Relentless pursuit of foundational principles means that one question always leads to another, even as important discoveries are made along the way.

Successful scientists must learn to analyze and then articulate findings by writing and speaking well; both are key facets of a liberal arts education. They must be persistent, never giving up on even a seemingly impossible question. They must work hard, and they must never be satisfied — once one problem is solved, they must move on to the next.

It is important to note that successful scientists are not in it alone. Besides valuing their support network, they must take advantage of excellent mentors and relish working with others and within their institution. Building strong connections and a vibrant network are critical in neuroscience, as in virtually any profession. And strong networks are what we help create here at Trinity.

As the College’s neuroscience program moves into the next 25 years and beyond, fundraising is well under way for the construction of the Neurosciences Laboratory Wing, a $3.5 million, 4,425-square-foot space adjacent to the Albert C. Jacobs Life Sciences Center that will provide state-of-the-art facilities for faculty members and students in the neurosciences. Features of the wing will include computer workstations for cognitive analysis of fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) scans, a laboratory, and a neuroscience seminar room.

I am truly excited about the possibilities for the new wing because I know firsthand that great facilities provide the space where great learning can take place. As I mentioned, my passion for neuroscience and resolving complex questions brought me into higher education administration, and it is that passion that will keep me connected to the sciences and liberal arts forever.