Stepping onto Commonwealth Avenue the Wednesday morning after the Red Sox won the World Series was a thrill. Barricades were already set up along the streets, fans were lining up in their jerseys, and kids were jumping at the bit to see their heroes parade before their eyes through the city streets. And yet, it was a conversation at 677 Beacon St. with Dr. Arash Yazdanbakhsh that radiated much more passion than any trophy possibly could.
6,191 miles; that’s how far Dr. Yazdanbakhsh travelled from Iran to move to the United States. Already an MD in Iran before leaving, Dr. Yazdanbakhsh described practicing medicine in Iran as much different than in the United States. In Iran, an MD was expected to maintain an additional one or two other jobs in order to make a living. By submitting peer-reviewed papers to American professors via email, Dr. Yazdanbakhsh was noticed in the American research scene. Through his outgoing attitude, Dr. Yazdanbakhsh secured a spot at Boston University, where he ultimately obtained a Ph.D. in computational neuroscience.
When asked about role models, Dr. Yazdanbakhsh quickly mentions Albert Einstein. After reading one of Einstein’s books, Dr. Yazdanbakhsh was astounded by Einstein’s love of physics and mathematics. Dr. Yazdanbakhsh applied his love for physiology and found his passion in neuroscience, a field that has incredible room for innovation in combination with a subject as meticulous as mathematics.
When he first started in research, Dr. Yazdanbakhsh was involved with experiments on perception and visual experience that used eye tracking to record data from virtual reality. Tying this to reaction times, Dr. Yazdanbakhsh inferred what certain saccades meant when they occurred. This was done through the gathering of multitudes of data, then the deep analysis of the data through computer models and programs. In later research, Dr. Yazdanbakhsh became involved in researching other forms of neural modeling, the psychophysics behind Parkinson’s disease, and electrophysiology.
At Boston University, Dr. Yazdanbakhsh teaches NE 212, CN 510, and CN 530. NE 212 introduces students to the fundamentals of statistical research via MATLAB. This course focuses on explaining numerical integration programs through two settings: probability distributions and simulations of neural dynamics. CN 510/530 – Neural and Computational Models of Vision – delves into the constraints of mammalian visual processes through neural and computational models found using computer simulations.
In all his courses, Dr. Yazdanbakhsh praises the work of his students.
“The most gratifying thing is when a student of mine is thinking hard to solve a problem, and then steps outside the normal techniques and begin to think of novel ideas, more like a colleague of mine rather than a student,” Dr. Yazdanbakhsh said.
Dr. Yazdanbakhsh pairs hard thinking with creativity, and experimental design with thoroughness, all of which he describe as essential tools in a scientist’s toolkit.
For incoming neuroscience students, Dr. Yazdanbakhsh recommends building a broad view of the basis of neuroscience rather than specializing in a certain topic from the get-go.
“While there can’t be exact advice, observe as much as possible your freshman year,” Dr. Yazdanbaksh said. “Network. Talk to other students that are participating in research and find what you are interested in. This will allow you to find your niche.”
Dr. Yazdanbakhsh comments on the importance of being a part of such a distinguished neuroscience department at Boston University.
“There is a wide range of colleagues that are close together and allows for a good amount of cross-pollination. This allows for better work,” Dr. Yazdanbakhsh said. He also states that the faculty of BU is constantly giving effort, not only for their own research, but for their colleagues’ as well. “BU is the perfect place where you can walk down the street and the environment just recharges you.”
When he’s not in the classroom or in the lab, Dr. Yazdanbakhsh loves to be physically active. With a playlist ranging from Baroque to soft rock, Dr. Yazdanbakhsh enjoys tackling the gym for a workout. “The music adds a sense of rhythmicity to my workout.” When possible, Dr. Yazdanbakhsh tries to get outside and hike, as he places a lot of emphasis in connecting with natural objects, including sunlight and the outdoors.
Dr. Yazdanbakhsh’s tie to nature is evident when you walk in his office for the first time and recognize the flowering green plant hanging in the middle of the ceiling, sprawling in every direction. Dr. Yazdanbakhsh compares the vines of his plant to the dendritic spines of the brain.
“At the peak of its growth, this plant may have a few hundred leaves, so just imagine the brain is 100 times denser than this plant,” Dr. Yazdanbakhsh said. Dr. Yazdanbakhsh’s comparison highlights the detailed interconnections necessary for brain function. Like the plant and the brain, scientists around the world must come together and work in unison to answer the “serious questions that have yet been left unanswered.”
Who knows? Once that happens, there may be another parade rolling down Comm Ave, just this time, not for baseball.
Written by Trey Moore
Edited by Brian Privett, Emme Enojado
For Dr. Mario Muscedere, it all started with animals. During the weekends and summers of his childhood, the Baltimore, Maryland native would rise with the sun and escape with his dog, a mutt and former stray, to explore the woods and streams surrounding his suburban neighborhood, not returning home to reality until the dark swallowed the day.
“I was one of those kids who had to be restrained if there was a dog, cat, or any kind of animal around,” Dr. Muscedere said. “I was turning over rocks, always begging to go to the zoo, anything I could get I could not get enough of.”
Now, Dr. Muscedere is a full-time lecturer, with roles in both the Undergraduate Program in Neuroscience and the Department of Biology at Boston University. Currently, he instructs BI/NE 545: Neurobiology of Motivated Behavior in the fall and BI 315: Systems Physiology and BI 542: Neuroethology in the spring. Although his intrigue with the interaction between animals and behavioral biology has been a constant in his life, he was not introduced to the field of neuroscience until he arrived at BU for his Ph.D.
“I graduated with a B.S. in Biology from the University of Maryland, so I didn’t really have any neuroscience experience until I came here,” Dr. Muscedere said. “I did my Ph.D. research in the Traniello Lab, and I thought I was just going to study termite behavior, because that’s what I was doing as an undergraduate. But the Traniello Lab was discussing a new project they wanted to explore- the physiology and neurobiology that underlies behaviors in ants. The lab was heading in that direction, and that was the first time I really started to become a neuroscientist.”
For his graduate research, he focused on studying the sensory, neuromodulatory, and behavioral mechanisms that support task performance of individual worker ants in cooperative colonies. During this time, he also learned how to perform basic neuroscience laboratory techniques, such as brain dissections and immunocytochemistry, to investigate the brain anatomy and neurochemistry of their ant subjects. Then, as a postdoctoral faculty fellow and lecturer for BU’s Undergraduate Program in Neuroscience, he assisted in the revamping of the undergraduate neuroscience major – planning and creating course themes and topics along with lab manuals and the curriculum.
“I did that for about three years, and then I got a job teaching at a small liberal arts college in Arkansas,” Dr. Muscedere said. “I worked there for three years- great school, great students- but decided to come back to Boston because it was just the right move. So when this job opened up, I went for it.”
Dr. Muscedere returned in September of 2017, making this year his second academic school year as a full time lecturer at BU. Here, he says that BU gives him the freedom to try new things, especially in terms of instructional strategies, whether that be clicker questions or starting new classes to give students interesting experiences. Additionally, as a lecturer, he is able to form meaningful academic relationships with students.
“The best part of my day is just sitting in office hours and having people come by and talking about the subject,” Dr. Muscedere said. “It can be hard to make those one-on-one relationships when you teach really big classes, but in some of my upper level classes that are about 15 students it’s a lot easier and that’s what I really like: having that personal effect on somebody’s career, having an ‘aha’ moment with them.”
He accredits this opportunity to have a personal effects with students to tight knit community of the neuroscience department.
“I think with the neuroscience program in particular, since it’s small we think a little more about undergraduate experience, whereas in some of the bigger departments where the divisions are more spread out, that’s harder to do,” he said. “So I think that it’s easier for us to get to know students than it is for some of the other programs.”
While his current focus is undergraduate education, he continues to work on research, working collaboratively with the Traniello lab and finishing up some of the projects he started in his previous job. Dr. Muscedere’s studies aim to understand how worker brain evolution may be linked to the behavioral, social, ecological, and life history variation that exists among species- investigating sensory deprivation and neuroplasticity, among other areas.
“How animals in social groups make decisions and think strategically… it’s something that applies to humans too,” he said.
For current students, he has one piece of advice.
“Think about what you might want to do when you graduate and set yourself up now to get where you want to go, as opposed to scrambling in the last two years,” Dr. Muscedere said. “So start reaching out to your professors, ask about research and shadowing opportunities, volunteering, and UROP projects. Build towards getting experience because that is what will help you get where you want to go.”
According to Dr. Muscedere, anybody who is college now for neuroscience is presumably going to witness incredible gains made in the next 30-50 years- because of this, going to graduate school for neuroscience opens up the opportunities to work on projects that are truly cutting edge.
“In many ways, the field of neuroscience is still in its infancy,” Dr. Muscedere said. “The central problem in neuroscience, or at least behavioral neuroscience, is how do we connect activity of neural circuits to behavior? That question is still almost wide open, and what better time to get involved than in the beginning?”
Written by: Emme Enojado
Editor: Yasmine Sami
College often emits the energy of a coffee shop on a Friday morning: the overwhelming presence of chaos, the necessity of caffeine, and the scarcity of places to fit in. In the midst of this hectic, congested, and high-strung environment sits the unperturbed and poised Radhika Dhanak, senior in the College of Arts and Sciences and current President of the Mind and Brain Society. She sips her small latte as she admires the silent presence of the trees outside the window and ignores the imposing energy that surrounds her. Radhika’s mind, however, is not as tranquil as her disposition, “sometimes I look at the trees and feel in awe, these things just grow,” she said. “I’m so insignificant, it really takes the pressure off.” She radiates the same serene, but calculating, energy from the comfort of the coffee shop as she does while delegating as MBS’s fearless leader.
Radhika’s childhood was just as dynamic and ever-changing as her mind. She lived a comfortable life of consistency in Dubai where her future could be seen in the shadow of her older brother and sister. This changed at the age of fifteen when she moved to Ahmedabad, India. “[Moving] was just this disruption, you know?” Radhika said. “It was like uprooting everything when you had just laid down the roots…It was letting go of everything that was familiar.”
In hindsight, she recalls feeling enlightened. “I wouldn’t trade [my experience] for anything else, I wouldn’t have done the things I did afterwards [if it hadn’t happened], I wouldn’t have learned to live and think the way I do now. Moving was necessary.”
Radhika attended two different academic institutions while she lived in India, and the two offered very different experiences.
“My first school wasn’t very pleasant,” she said. “By the second time I moved I really shut myself out and didn’t take full advantage of the opportunity that was in front of me. Now, I know to be more receptive to things and not just live in my head.”
Her second institution focused heavily on experiential learning, which taught her about passion, leadership, and empathy. Her director held the theory that schools are for students.
“When it comes to rules, we decide,” Radhika said. “You do the work that matters to you and you give back to society.” She carried this wisdom across the Atlantic to Boston University, where she now uses it to fulfill her three academic disciplines — neuroscience, philosophy, and visual arts — and to give back to the neuroscience community by serving as president of one of the most prominent academic organizations on campus.
As for why she decided to live a fifteen hour flight away from home, she offers the following recollection.
“I was planning to study in the UK, which is where my sister studied at the time, but I would’ve depended on her for everything and I really didn’t want that,” she said. “I wanted to learn on my own, so I applied to BU and forced myself again to learn from change.”
The biggest challenge presented itself in the form of her first year, and once she conquered it, she found one lesson to be very true.
“Every single semester presents a new challenge, you always come out of it thinking that you’ve figured it all out, and then the next one starts and you realize you really haven’t figured it out at all, it’s difficult.”
Her second year was comprised of constant questioning.
“I had many existential crises… I’d look outside and see people in cars and see people in buildings and I thought, why? What are we doing? Why are we doing this? What does this mean?”
These questions inspired her to take a class on existentialism and to declare a second major in the discipline that would give her much needed perspective.
“I started thinking: what do my actions mean? How do I make them purposeful? Am I supposed to be selfish and invested in my head?” she said. “It’s my responsibility to think better than that, to try to change something, to go where there is an imbalance of access and resources.”
Her junior year became a result of her enlightenment: she became MBS secretary, an LA, a research assistant, and a peer mentor, declared a minor in visual arts, and took five classes each semester.
Though Radhika currently works in the Reinhart Lab at Boston University — a lab that seeks to understand the nature of visual perception and cognition in the healthy adult brain and how it is affected by aging and neuropsychiatric illnesses — her primary goals in life are not necessarily career oriented.
“I think my primary goal is to figure out what life means to me and understand how I can live it well,” she said. “In everything that I do, I focus on figuring out what I needed to learn from that situation and try to expand my understanding of life, people, and myself. If you’re looking to learn, you can learn from anything, so I hold on to neuroscience, I hold on to philosophy, I hold on to visual arts, then I add things outside of them to take full advantage of this time in my life, this place and its resources.”
Her advice to her fellow undergrads is to aim to understand what their work ethic is.
“Once you understand how you like to function, it’s easier to focus on what you can and want to achieve.
“Then learn the skills necessary to succeed in your field: get lab experience, take upper level classes, force yourself to reflect, When you’re in a field like neuroscience you forget your passions because you might be so focused on doing the most competitive thing within the field; no, do what makes sense to you because then it isn’t a competition.”
In that moment, Radhika made it evident that the most placid people have some of the loudest, most active minds.
Writer: Stephanie Gonzalez
Editors: Emme Enojado, Enzo Plaitano, and Yasmine Sami
As one enters the room on a rainy Monday afternoon, it’s difficult to escape the faint impression of mad science afoot. Papers and folders lay scattered over the floor and work desks in a secret pattern. In front of the spacious window sits a singular Dyson bladeless fan, eternally cool with its space age aesthetic. The whiteboard walls are plastered with various markings – equations, questions, drawings scientific and whimsical – that fill the room with scholarly energy. This is the office of Dr. Jeff Gavornik; and in the middle, tea in hand, sits the man himself.
Dr. Gavornik teaches NE203/BI325: Principles of Neuroscience, one of the core courses for neuroscience students at BU. He currently works as an Assistant Professor of Biology at BU and P.I. of his own Gavornik Lab. However, like most of us, Dr. Gavornik hasn’t always been here; his unique path to BU has been filled with interesting developments and detours. Growing up, his father was a pilot in the Air Force, and so Dr. Gavornik’s childhood was spotted with relocations from Alaska (his birthplace) to Arizona, Texas, Ohio, and back to Texas again. Ultimately, Texas became his ‘home,’ as he spent his high school years there before attending Rice University in the late 90s for undergraduate studies in Electrical & Computer Engineering & History.
While studying at Rice, Dr. Gavornik interned for two stints at MITRE in Bedford, MA, a non-for-profit research and development corporation partnering closely with the federal government. There, he worked on a project concerning acceptance testing for the production of the now well-known Iridium satellite network. His experience proved useful, as while his undergraduate studies were winding down, he was approached by Boeing’s space program for work on their own Iridium-related contract. Unfortunately (or luckily), Boeing’s Iridium contract fell through, and Dr. Gavornik was shifted to work on the International Space Station with NASA.
Of his time there, Dr. Gavornik recalls that “there were very interesting things about it,” including cool technical developments such as a “neat robot arm designed so it could reach over itself, from one part to another part, and sort of inchworm its way across the Space Station.” In addition, the program paid for his Master’s Degree at Rice in Electrical Engineering (2003), which he earned simultaneously. However, the day-to-day tedium proved oppressive. The ISS was an international effort on most levels, he explained, and so it was rife with the inevitable (and painful) sorts of debates and compromises which hinder a project’s tangible progress.
“Meetings and TPS forms, planning, sitting in these really long international meetings… falling asleep for days at a time, while people were arguing about whose responsibility these things should be – the day-to-day stuff wasn’t super exciting,” he said. It didn’t seem to get better either, as he remembers being “surrounded by people who were my age now, and they were doing the exact same stuff I was doing, and I was already sort of getting bored with it.”
Turning away from industry, Dr. Gavornik moved from Houston to attend graduate school at the University of Texas in Austin.
“I didn’t honestly even know what neuroscience was, and didn’t necessarily intend to.” he said. “I applied, and sort of my philosophy was, ‘I’ll take classes broadly, and whatever I think is interesting, I’ll do.’ Because I’d had the other experience of basically doing something I wasn’t super excited about for a job, and so I knew that wasn’t the most fun in the world.”
This approach still netted Dr. Gavornik a Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering in 2009, but along the way he found interest in neuroscience, recalling his introductory class in computational neuroscience with particular fondness to this day. After UT, Dr. Gavornik performed postdoctoral research at MIT for five years in what he described as a “pressure-cooker” environment, “where everybody just feels like they’re so wound tight and really have to do well, or the world’s going to end.” It wasn’t until 2015 that he finally made BU his home, due partly to fortuitous circumstance.
“You’re sort of at the mercy of who has job applications posted when you’re at the right point in your career to be competitive, and so really the thing that brought me to BU was the fact that they had a position posted at the time I was applying, appropriate for what I was looking for (in systems neuroscience).” Dr. Gavornik said. “If they didn’t have the posting, I could have ended up at Purdue, or wherever. That said, I think it turned out to be a really great place for me, for a variety of reasons. One of them is that BU is really supportive of neuroscience right now as an area of expertise…. From the perspective of someone that’s a faculty member here, it’s great. They want you to do well, there’s real support for doing the experiments, and there’s support for having the equipment necessary.”
Beyond the institutional support, Dr. Gavornik also relishes the overall academic environment at BU.
“It’s a very nice combination, I think, of being a very good university with very good students interested in science, hard workers, but also who seem enthusiastic and happy to be here,” he said. “There’s a lot of places where it’s very smart, and it’s super aggressive. BU, in my experience, is not that way – it’s very smart, and it’s friendly about it.”
Bouncing off his praise of the student environment, we decided to ask Dr. Gavornik what advice he could provide to the students themselves. His answer got into more detail, and emphasized basic principles of scholarship and life in general.
“These things just don’t fall in your lap. You have to actively work for the things you want, and even the things you may not want but are important for you to have. Do the leg work.”
More specifically, he noted the significance of putting yourself out there for networking events, and the importance of having Plans A and B to work towards.
“You have to be realistic. With any sort of job where isn’t going to actually happen.” Correspondingly, even though he left industry for academia, Dr. Gavornik underscored the need to understand the opportunities in industry when considering there are a high number of people interested and technically qualified, unless you are an unusual individual or in unusual circumstances, you might just have to get lucky,” he said.…. “ You have to recognize that there are certain things out of your control, and recognize there’s a certain degree of randomness, and plan for the possibility that what it is that you want to do future with academic goals, or vice versa.
When one talks with Dr. Gavornik about the future itself, however, things become a bit hazier (and brighter). There’s a feeling, he explains, that neuroscience is on the edge of a very productive period resembling that of the physics revolution in the early 1900s, or NASA during its most exciting period of pioneering space exploration.
“In a sense, the entirety of our experience of the world is a consequence of how the neurons in our brain are wired together,” he said. “If we understood how the brain works, then in principle we could understand the entirety of the experience of being human.” What a golden age of scientific discovery that would be.
However, as Dr. Gavornik says, we still struggle to fully understand the function of even the simplest neurological systems, and thus “the big questions like ‘what is the nature of existence as defined by the brain’ are yet to be answered.” To know that these ‘big questions’ still lie as sleeping giants invokes a sense of wonder, and genuine inspiration – they are why Dr. Gavornik says he began studying neuroscience in the first place. Hopefully, the answers will reveal themselves soon.
Writer: Brian Privett
Editors: Emme Enojado, Enzo Plaitano, and Yasmine Sami
Outside of Boston University, when the work hours come to a pause, Dr. Paul Lipton lives a life of adventure. He zooms past cars on his motorcycle, with his long time fantasy of becoming a race car driver in mind. He’s explored the beauty of the South Pacific Ocean when he scuba dived in Fiji and New Zealand. He’s climbed mountains and down glaciers in Alaska, and has set foot in European streets a dozen times.
But this life of adventure and excitement does not end when he bikes into campus every morning. Here, he is the director of the Undergraduate Program in Neuroscience, leading and guiding passionately curious minds. He is an associate director for the Boston University Kilachand Honors College and a faculty advisor for the Mind and Brain Society. Here, working alongside students and faculty, he instills an invaluable excitement for learning.
As a child, Dr. Lipton was constantly surrounded by conversations on human nature and the psychology of people, as his father was an English professor who taught about the psychology of adolescents through literature. This exposure developed a deep curiosity to understand how people work, but he found that just thinking about it from a psychological perspective was unsatisfying — he wanted to learn about the mechanisms behind the brain.
However, neuroscience was a fledgling field at the undergraduate level when he was in college, and Dr. Lipton graduated with a B.A. in Economics at SUNY Buffalo. Studying neuroscience did not cross his mind until his father connected him with one of his colleagues in the neurobiology department at Stony Brook University.
“In my senior year of college, I was trying to decide if I should apply to medical school or law school — those were the two options at the time,” Dr. Lipton said. “My father got my in contact with his colleague who happened to be a neurobiologist, and he told me about some really cool experiments that I had never even conceived of before.’”
After speaking with his father’s colleague, he also developed a newfound fascination for the field. Exploring the insights of the human mind through experimental methods mesmerized him, leading him to apply to the graduate program.
“It was not a very well informed decision,” Dr. Lipton said. “I knew very little about neuroscience, had never even taken a neuroscience class before, and had only taken one introductory psychology course. I applied blindly, and was accepted.”
From there, he studied the neurocircuitry that supports different types of learning and memory at a cognitive neurobiology laboratory at Stony Brook. When this lab transferred up to Boston, Dr. Lipton also moved to the city and stayed here till he got his PhD at Boston University in 2000.
Dr. Lipton returned to Boston University’s neuroscience department in 2003 as an academic director, and has been the director of the undergraduate program since 2013. As the director of the Undergraduate Program in Neuroscience, Dr. Lipton is responsible for overseeing the curriculum, managing course changes and new policies, and communicating with program faculty and the dean’s office. Outside of the neuroscience department, Dr. Lipton is one of two associate directors for the Boston University Kilachand Honors College, where he oversees and revises the curriculum and works with students on their senior keystone projects.
Every fall, Dr. Lipton teaches NE 101: Introduction to Neuroscience — the first core neuroscience course that majors take. This course on the biological basis of behavior and cognition covers topics from neuroanatomy and biology to the basics of neuropsychiatric disorders. Approximately 150 students fill the lecture room three times a week, and the room constantly brims with energy and engagement.
“Almost every week there’s something new in class, and the characters I see on a weekly basis make me laugh,” Dr. Lipton said. “Some of the individuals in that class make it a very fun place to be. They make it light, different — so the class never gets old.”
Outside of class, students come to Dr. Lipton’s office hours, where he answers any questions about material that students have and opens the space to discussions.
“I love the conversations I have with students,” Dr. Lipton said. “I love hearing hearing each and every individual student’s story — what makes their particular experiences both here and outside of the classroom and the university unique.”
Dr. Lipton also says that some notable experiences are when students put their ideas into action. These events include those hosted by BU Mind and Brain Society —such as BRAIN Day, an annual event that educates the Boston community on the wonders of the human mind, and Miracle Berries, an event that lets participants experience how taste perception changes by eating a berry — and independent programming.
“One year, a student wanted to put on a symposium about music and the brain, and he recruited four internationally recognized scholars on music and neuroscience, the Boston Symphony Brass Quartet to perform in the evening, and had about 300 people register for the event,” Dr. Lipton said. “To see one student’s dedication and then follow through for putting together a program like this was phenomenal.”
To Dr. Lipton, one of the reasons why the neuroscience program at BU is unique is because of the people: from the contagious enthusiasm of the students who tread Commonwealth Avenue to the dedication of the professors and faculty, who continuously put students and their learning first.
“The people make the place, they define the culture of the place, they are the heart of what makes up this place — and what I think is exciting about being here in Boston is the unbelievably rich community of neuroscience that’s going on between all the different universities,” Dr. Lipton said. “That exact excitement is what makes teaching never get old. Constantly seeing a new group of students express this amazement for the way the system works keeps me invigorated. It’s the enthusiasm of the students that’s really unlike anything I have ever seen.”
Written by: Emme Enojado
Editors: Yoana Grigorova, Stephanie Gonzalez, Enzo Plaitano
Every Saturday, a first grade Abhinav Prasad would follow his father to a weekly math tutoring program, and as his father would run the program, which assisted various schools in the Fremont, California area, Abhinav would teach. Here, long before his mind was on college or careers, his small hand would glide along sheets of paper, clenching a #2 pencil that would write numbers, equations, and solutions. All of this work was not for himself, but for the sake of others. For Prasad, teaching, advising, and mentoring experiences were constantly weaved into his experiences as a child. He recognized his ability to explain concepts to people, and took advantage of this gift by taking on positions such as peer mentor and academic coach as an undergraduate student at Boston University. When Prasad, class of 2017, graduated with a Bachelors in Neuroscience in three years, he completed his circle of lifelong advising by taking on the role of the Undergraduate Program in Neuroscience Program Administrator.
Prasad tackles many responsibilities in his office on the second floor of 2 Cummington Mall. His responsibilities include advising, managing various parts of the neuroscience program such as scheduling, and financing – managing the budget and placing orders. To Prasad, the most rewarding experiences are when overwhelmed students come in, and he’s able to help them through the situation, plan what to do for the semester and show them how to use the tools they already have to succeed in college. “Before anything, it’s part of my job to work with students just to make sure they’re okay,” Prasad said, “I want to make sure that they’ve found a place here and are comfortable with their surroundings. I know that when I came here my freshman year, being at BU amongst a bunch of strangers made me feel like I couldn’t reach my goal to advance myself. So I want to make sure that students are motivated and just happy with being in the place that they are.”
Prasad graduated from a competitive high school, one with an unhealthy atmosphere of over-ambitious students. When choosing colleges, his options were down to two paths: either remain close to home and stay in California or come to Boston University. “I decided that I wanted to escape that bubble I grew up in, escape that crowd and come to BU to start fresh,” Prasad said. “When I was deciding where to go, I talked to current students, and they told me about how BU is a place with academically oriented students, which is exactly what I wanted: an atmosphere where other students would be willing to work with me and have healthy competition.”
According to Prasad, healthy competition was precisely what he found at BU. As he took the 3,000-mile journey from west to east coast, Prasad had a clear idea of how he wanted to transform himself as he moved from high school to college. “I was fairly unmotivated in academics in high school, believe it or not,” Prasad said. “Had my high school ranked, I probably would have been in the bottom 10% of my class. So, I looked at BU as a second chance to show myself and those around me that I am academically inclined and that I do want to succeed in college and my career.”
Although he faced culture and environment shock as he took his first steps on Commonwealth Avenue, one thing that helped him adapt to his new life was FY101, the 1-credit seminar-style course for new students at BU. “That was a class that introduced me to a lot of people, to BU, and to Boston,” Prasad said. “Coming to BU, where the people and environment are different, was a challenge, and FY 101 helped me acclimate and get over my initial fear of interacting with people.”
Prasad became involved in research during his 4th semester of college at the Center for Autism and Research Excellence, but after a couple of months, he decided to try out something different. At the end of the same semester, he contacted his NE 204: Introduction to Computational Models of Brain and Behavior professor, Arash Yazdanbakhsh, and began working in his lab that summer. This experience helped him find his senior thesis topic, which focused on creating a novel experience to quantify cognitive processes of perceptual priming or the identification of an incomplete word in a word-stem completion test. In the future, Prasad would like to compare the performance of healthy control subjects to the performance of individuals with Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s Disease. The eventual end goal, he says, is to figure out whether or not this test would be able to identify early cognitive markers for these neurodegenerative diseases.
This year, Prasad is in the process of applying to medical school. “At the beginning of college, I came in with a set plan: I’m going to major in neuroscience, go to medical school, and become a neurosurgeon,” Prasad said. “But I think college has really helped me broaden my horizons. I’m not going to decide exactly what I’m going to do, and that’s okay. I’m sure I’ll go into medical school and have various clinician experiences that will draw me into various fields in medicine, but as for exactly what type of clinician work, I’m leaving that up to myself in four years.”
From years of experience and advising, Prasad’s outlook on life and college had changed from when he first stepped on Commonwealth Avenue. “College is a time for you to explore your interests,” Prasad said. “If you come in with a strict academic focus, exactly how you want your GPA, exactly where or what you want to do after graduation, sometimes that will bring on a lot of unnecessary pressure. Instead, just allow yourself to explore your interests and see where one course takes you.”
Writer: Emme Enojado
Editors: Yoana Grigorova, Enzo Plaitano, Yasmine Sami
On April 9, 2018, Boston University School of Medicine (BUSM) hosted its Fourth Annual Carlos S. Kase Neurology Research Symposium where medical students, residents, and fellows had the opportunity to present their clinical research. This is one of the many events hosted by both BUSM and Boston Medical Center (BMC) that welcomes undergraduate students interested in neuroscience and clinical research to attend and gain further insight into the field.
A large exhibit hall decorated with scientific posters is filled with curious students flocking around each presenter. Passionate discussions about new discoveries within the field of neurological disorders research echoes throughout the room. Attendees gather as Courtney Bayruns, a third-year medical student, passionately shares her research on intubation rates in pediatric emergency department patients suffering from seizures. Bayruns eagerly shares her neuroscience journey, which began in the undergraduate neuroscience program at Boston University.
“Say hello to Dr. Lipton for me!” Bayruns enthusiastically asks as she recollects memories from her college years. She graduated in 2015 with a dual degree in Human Physiology and Neuroscience. Bayruns became interested in research during her freshman year while part of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) program and sophomore through senior year when she was funded by the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP). During her years as an undergraduate student, Bayruns developed research-oriented skills through the laboratory sections offered in NE203, Principles of Neuroscience, with Dr. Shoai Hattori and other neuroscience courses. “Neuroscience labs in class help build foundational skills like micropipetting and microscopy, which are needed in research,” Bayruns said. “A lot of labs really appreciate the fact that we already have experience with these skills thanks to these classes.” Bayruns particularly enjoyed NE535, Translational Research in Alzheimer’s Disease, with Dr. Lucia Pastorino, because of its application of research in real-world scenarios.
Bayruns is currently finishing her third year of medical school and focusing on pediatric neurology research. At the symposium, she presents her most recent project: Intubation in Pediatric Patients Presenting with Seizures to the Emergency Department. This retrospective study uses BMC patient charts to consolidate data that examines ways to prevent pediatric status epilepticus and adverse outcomes of seizing kids in the Emergency Department. One aspect of Bayruns and her team’s research examines unnecessary intubation rates in pediatric seizure patients. During intubation, a physician inserts a breathing tube into the patient, protecting their airway and providing artificial ventilation. It is thought that intubation rates may increase in the presence of less experienced physicians, but the data is still preliminary. Some children involved in these cases experience febrile seizures caused by fevers and often lack the need for intubation, but receive the intervention nonetheless. Like with most clinical research, more data must be extracted and analyzed until conclusive trends are identified. This analysis will include many patient factors such as age, seizure duration, antiepileptic drugs used, and intubation among others. Her work plans to optimize pediatric seizure preventative care as well as the management of seizing kids in the Emergency Department.
Her undergraduate program, neuroscience labs, and research experiences shaped Bayruns into the person that she is today. “I felt a huge advantage compared to some of my classmates during my neuroscience units in medical school because my major covered the topic in such detail.” She also learned that perseverance is key when trying to enter the realm of research. “Just keep emailing,” Bayruns says when asked how to find a research opportunity. “You may get rejected a bunch of times, but eventually you’ll get a response from a lab you love.” She urges undergraduate students to get involved in research but says that it is okay if you do not start early. “Take your time and be sure to enjoy your undergraduate years.” She hopes to continue her neuroscience journey by attending a pediatric residency and treating children impacted by neurological disorders.
Bayruns still cherishes the memories and experiences that she made in college. “Dr. Lipton and the neuroscience department do a great job at preparing everyone for medical research and research-based jobs.” She also encourages undergraduate students to look into the field of neurology. “You never know,” she playfully jokes, “maybe one day I’ll mentor you as your attending!”
Check out the BUSM Calendar page for similar events to attend: https://www.bumc.bu.edu/busm/calendar/
Writers: Enzo Plaitano, Yoana Grigorova, and Yasmine Sami
Editors: Stephanie Gonzalez and Emme Enojado
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
Boston University has always been home to Dr. Shoai Hattori, a lecturer and the assistant director of the Undergraduate Neuroscience Program. He embarked on his neuroscience journey over 14 years ago as an undergraduate student at BU and returned to his alma mater to teach alongside many of the same professors who mentored him.
Upon asking Dr. Hattori about his childhood home, he pointed out the window, “actually, I can walk home from here!” His home has always been Boston, a melting pot of bright, driven intellects, which he says accounts for part of his early development. He grew up in a very liberal and progressive environment. His mother, the caretaker of five children, held a psychology degree, while his father, an MD-PhD, conducted diabetes research. He attended Brookline High School, which is ranked one of the best high school programs in the nation. Needless to say, academics were a priority in his neighborhood; nevertheless, his ambition was driven primarily by a keen interest in his studies rather than by his environment.
Dr. Hattori graduated from Boston University in 2008 with a degree in Biology. “Neuro didn’t exist when I came here…[but] I really liked biology in high school; I like to know how things work.” Though he had plans to attend medical school when he first arrived, pivotal events in his life led him to pursue research instead. “[Deciding between MD vs. Ph.D.] was a constant debate throughout my college career, I had many conversations with my advisor…the one event that really decided it for me was my grandfather.” His grandfather’s battle with locked-in syndrome came at a time when the field of neuroprosthetics and machinery was rapidly advancing, and he “became really fascinated by it…[it] pushed [him] in the right direction.” His research experience began at the Boston University School of Medicine, where he worked at the pharmacology department looking at gamma receptors and their relation to cocaine addiction. After that, he proceeded to join Dr. Howard Eichenbaum’s Lab, where he got to explore studies on both molecular and systems neuroscience; he stayed there for the remainder of his undergraduate college career.
After graduation, he yearned to do the “brain-machine interface sort of work,” so he applied to schools that could give him that kind of opportunity. He ultimately decided to attend The Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University and obtained his Ph.D. in Neuroscience. He worked in a memory lab with Dr. John F. Disterhoft during his years there. One of his most memorable experiences at the institution was co-founding the Northwestern University Brain Awareness Outreach program (NUBAO), a graduate student-led public outreach initiative that focuses on educating and inspiring the Chicago community to learn more about the brain. This program later grew to become a non-profit organization; he shared the story of its development:
“Some Ph.D. programs train you just to do research…my program was very good at encouraging students to explore other areas. One way that my program encouraged that was by giving funding to start up whatever you wanted to. So, I remember having a chat with my colleague, Jessica Wilson, about doing something for Brain Awareness Week…”
Brain Awareness Week (BAW) is a campaign ran by the Dana Foundation that aims to increase awareness about the benefits of brain research. “She was thinking very small scale, but I was like ‘no, let’s go big.’ So I approached the program, pitched the idea, and they said ‘great, yeah, that sounds awesome! Here’s some money!’” Dr. Hattori was given a 500 dollar budget for the event, but with hard work and the help of many fruitful connections, he was able to make the event a great success.
“The first year that we organized an event – with our 500 dollar budget – we had around 60 volunteers, and at least 300 people showed up. We then decided to start our own group. We applied for additional funding and became recognized as an actual group. We actually got a grant of a couple thousand dollars from the University, and we just kept doing events. What started off as a small event is now a non-profit.”
The organization became recognized by the Society for Neuroscience and is now hosting events for its eighth year. His involvement in this organization inspired the idea of BRAIN Day, an annual outreach event held by the Mind and Brain Society at BU. You can learn more about NUBAO at http://www.nubrainawareness.com.
After graduating in 2014, Dr. Hattori considered many possible paths but ultimately decided to come back to Boston University. “I was tired of doing research, but I really enjoyed teaching,” he says, “actually, I was at a conference in San Diego, and Paul [Lipton] was there…We met up and talked about how he had started the neuroscience program at BU and what areas [of the program] needed improvement.” He also claims that he really missed his city and wanted to come back home. He finds fulfillment in being an educator at his alma mater and asserts that students should go into neuroscience because “there is so much you can do with it, plus, the brain is cool!”
Dr. Hattori currently teaches three classes at BU: Neural Control of Movement (NE526), the lab portion of Introduction to Cellular and Molecular Biology (NE102), and the lab portion of Principles of Neuroscience with Lab (NE203). You can find more information about these courses in the Boston University Course Catalog.
Writer: Stephanie Gonzalez
Editor: Enzo Plaitano and Yoana Grigorova
Sitting across from us in the comfort of her very practical, but nevertheless, cozy office space, Dr. Lucia Pastorino savors her chicken and rice. “Do you mind if I eat lunch? I haven’t eaten all day,” she asks as she gets out her lunch box. A prominent member of the Undergraduate Neuroscience Department, Dr. Pastorino keeps a tight schedule; nonetheless, she takes the time to share her inspiring story of exploration, discovery, and growth.
Dr. Pastorino was born in the beautiful city of Lecco, Italy, a small industrial town north of Milan. “It’s beautiful because it’s right at the lake and there are mountains,” she reminisces, “it was a city that taught me a lot; it’s a city of hard workers.” The industrial nature of the city produced a population that mostly consisted of business professionals and entrepreneurs; however, that was not her calling. “I really didn’t want to be in business. I wanted to be in the science field, so I chose [to pursue a] B.S./M.S. for my undergraduate studies.”
Dr. Pastorino’s undergraduate years were spent at the University of Milan studying Medicinal and Pharmaceutical Chemistry, which she loved because of its interdisciplinary applications to studies of medicine. “I wanted to see things from all different angles,” she explains, “with Medicinal Chemistry, you have chemistry, physiology, anatomy, biology, and biochemistry… you get to bring everything into the lab in one experience.” When she started her thesis, Dr. Pastorino was working in a Neuropharmacology lab that conducted studies on Alzheimer’s Disease, which then became the basis of her career as a researcher studying how modifications in the protein APP affect the progression of Alzheimer’s Disease. In 1996, she published her first paper with this lab, exploring the functions of beta-secretase at the genetic level. After graduation, she completed a fellowship in Geneva and eventually earned a Ph.D. in Neuropharmacology at her alma mater.
Dr. Pastorino first arrived in the United States on October 2nd, 1999 for her postdoctoral fellowship at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City. “I remember landing at JFK and thinking, ‘what a beautiful skyline,’” she recalls, “I couldn’t wait to get out of the airplane. I loved it.” She also recalls her living space, which was “altogether, as big as [her office].” In spite of her cramped apartment – which also came with mice and roaches – Dr. Pastorino claims that her three years at Mount Sinai were the best years of her life. What she loved most about New York was that “[she] was nobody, with the happiness to be nobody,” which gave her the freedom to be independent and pursue her own adventures. She proceeded to publish another paper in 2002 concerning the intracellular transportation of beta-secretase, which contributes to the accumulation of Amyloid-beta plaques in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients.
At Mount Sinai, Dr. Pastorino met her future husband while taking English classes at a different institution. Shortly after they met, her then-boyfriend moved to Boston, and a year and a half later, she followed. In 2003, Dr. Pastorino worked as a researcher and instructor of Medicine at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. Three years later, she became an instructor at the Harvard University Extension School. There, she pursued her passion for teaching. “I love it,” she tells us, “I love telling you what this is all about. I get too excited!” In 2013, Dr. Pastorino became a lecturer of Neuroscience at Boston University. When we asked what attracted her the most to the university, she responds, “BU [has] a very cooperative and diverse community of scientists that [really enriches my teaching experience]. I wouldn’t be able to do the same somewhere else.” The neuroscience department at BU, which is ranked number 41 globally by US News, has a special place in her heart. “You guys, your motivation, your interest, your excitement – you’re challenging sometimes,” she explains, “we always hope to challenge you in a good way, knowing we will be challenged back. This is what makes all of us better, it keeps us growing.” Dr. Pastorino’s goal as an educator is to make sure that her students don’t fear the subjects she teaches and to make her classes as enjoyable as she can. She credits her department for giving her the freedom and flexibility to achieve her goals, and applauds “[the department’s] ability to be appreciative of all [their] resources and to push [themselves] to do something new.”
Dr. Pastorino currently teaches four classes at Boston University: Introduction to Cellular and Molecular Biology (NE102), Biology of Neurodegenerative Diseases (NE525), Translational Research in Alzheimer’s Disease (NE535), and the Pre-lab portion of Organic Chemistry I with Integrated Science Experience Lab (ISE II). You can find out more about these classes on the BU course catalog.
Writer: Stephanie Gonzalez
Editors: Enzo Plaitano, Yasmine Sami, and Yoana Grigorova