STUDENT FEATURE: Erin Ferguson
When the hours of the day are absent of sunlight and captured by endless thoughts of the mind, two roommates play a game of imagination, turning back time and drawing up different concepts of who they would be had they gone to another school. But for senior Erin Ferguson, imagining herself anywhere but Boston University would be unthinkable.
“My favorite part about BU is the neuroscience community,” Ferguson said. “I cannot put into words how much it has changed my life.” As the president of the Mind and Brain Society (MBS), a club open to all undergraduate students interested in neuroscience, and Editor-in-Chief of The Nerve, a student-run journal featuring articles on neuroscience topics, Ferguson is no stranger to 2 Cummington Mall, home of the Undergraduate Program in Neuroscience. At BU, she found herself, and who she is now is nowhere near who she was as a freshman. “I was really shy,” Ferguson said. “I was very reserved, would never talk, and was voted biggest nerd in my high school. Now, I’m involved with leadership, something I would have never, ever, ever considered four years ago.”
Although she lived in England for the first three years of her life, she was raised in the San Francisco Bay Area. Due to the region’s specialty in science and technology, her school strongly encouraged students, especially girls, to pursue careers in STEM fields. Inspired by a family history of nervous system related disorders, she came to BU knowing that she wanted to study neuroscience, and was academically satisfied her first semester. But Ferguson, 3,000 miles away from home and adjusting to college life, also found herself very overwhelmed. “I was in a rut,” Ferguson said. “I was used to being at the top of my class, and then I got here, and it was like whoa, this is really hard.”
She immersed herself in various student organizations, such as the campus orchestra and Global App Initiative, but none of them genuinely interested her. As soon as Ferguson traded her time for activities she was actually passionate about, such as MBS, she was a lot happier with her life. “My first year was basically a whole learning experience, in many different realms,” Ferguson said. “I had to learn how to study academically, how to take care of myself, and so on. It was just a trial period for college. As for the classes, they don’t get easier, but you get stronger.”
Up until sophomore year, Ferguson had medical school in mind. But after passing out at Student Health Services while they were taking her blood, she knew she needed to change paths. “The nurse literally laughed at me and was like ‘I don’t know how you would ever think that you could be a doctor if you can’t do needles or blood,’” she recalled. For a split of a second and in a moment of crisis, Ferguson planned on leaving the neuroscience major to transfer into the School of Education. At the time, she was a peer mentor for FY101, a seminar-style course for new students at BU, and a learning assistant for NE 101: Introduction to Neuroscience, and figured since she enjoyed the two that she would become a science teacher. But when she sat down with her advisor and Assistant Director for the Undergraduate Program in Neuroscience, Shoai Hattori, he opened her eyes to a different path.
“When I told Shoai my plan, he was basically like ‘Erin, no. You’ve told me so much about how you care about medicine and health. Actually, I think that public health might be a good fit for you,’” Ferguson said. “At the time, I had absolutely no idea what public health was. So I just kind of smiled and nodded as he told me about the 4+1 MPH program, and I basically applied because Shoai told me to, and he turned out to be completely right about it.” The program offered jointly by the College of Arts & Sciences (CAS) and the School of Public Health (SPH) allows highly motivated and curious students to earn their Bachelor of Arts and Masters in Public Health in five years, rather than the typical five-and-a-half years. She was admitted into the program her junior year, began taking courses at SPH her senior year, and is concentrating in epidemiology and biostatistics. The program has helped her uncover and define passions she never knew she had before and is now especially interested in where public health and neuroscience intersect.
Ferguson’s success isn’t limited to the classroom. During the academic years and summers, she expands her neuroscience knowledge and curiosity through working in various research laboratories. These include analyzing data in a clinical research trial investigating the effects of chronic oxytocin on the negative symptoms of schizophrenia at the Bonding and Attunement in Neuropsychiatric Disorders (BAND) Lab, conducting experiments on drug tolerance to cannabinoids in mice at Penn State College of Medicine, and interning at the Center for Autism Research Excellence (CARE). Her two years at CARE led her to complete a directed study in Fall 2016, receiving a Spring 2017 Student Stipend Award, and conducting an independent senior honors thesis on the association between lip-reading ability and neural correlates of face processing. “What I really like about research here is that they encourage you to do other things if you want to, allowing you to dip your toes into other things,” Ferguson said. “It was hard at first because I got started my sophomore year, and it was difficult for me to tune out all the people who did it their freshman year and were really competitive. You just have to tune out what other people are doing and do your own thing, and that was very hard for me to learn.”
Ferguson doesn’t know exactly why, but to her, neuroscience is a very different community. “Maybe it’s because it’s smaller, or the fact that we have great advisors who had always believed in me when I did not believe in myself, but it’s a whole different vibe than other majors that I’ve become acquainted with,” Ferguson said. “I also think it’s cool because people don’t know much about it. When you study physics, biology, and chemistry, it’s already laid out. But with neuroscience, we all have different interests in what hasn’t been discovered.”
After four years growing and changing alongside friends and faculty on Commonwealth Avenue and beyond, Ferguson has learned that at times, it’s okay to not be okay. “It’s okay to not have anything figured out and to be in this weird limbo period where you don’t know what’s going on at all- just because you don’t know what you’re doing does not mean your life is going to fall apart,” Ferguson said. “Just trust your gut, do what you love, and don’t be afraid to rely on other people. You can’t do this by yourself.”
Writer: Emme Enojado
Editor: Enzo Plaitano