Why I Majored in Neuroscience

Santiago Serrano ’25

Before I arrived at Pomona College, my relationship with science was limited. In high school, I was not involved in advanced science courses, often finding myself overshadowed by peers who seemed more innately talented in the scientific world. However, this belief went through a transformation upon joining the Pomona community. The Pomona Science Scholars program was a pivotal turning point, engaging me in a vibrant cohort where underrepresented groups in science thrived. It was within this nurturing environment that my fascination with neuroscience was established, unveiling a profound interest in the intricate workings of the human brain.

A course that significantly reshaped my academic journey was neurobiology, taught by Professor Karen Parfitt. This class epitomized the ideal learning experience, characterized by its small size and a curriculum that ensured each student's comprehension and engagement. The content and coursework were more intense than typical classes as they involved a thorough understanding of biology and neuroscience, but the vibrant dialogues in Professor Parfitt’s class stimulated an active educational experience, continually challenging and expanding our understanding of neurobiology.

Beyond the classroom, my neuroscience journey has been further advanced by the Beckman Fellowship. This opportunity has allowed me to delve into the intricate world of electrophysiology and Alzheimer’s Disease research. My experiences in the lab range from utilizing transgenic mouse models to examine learning impairments in Alzheimer’s Disease to employing innovative click chemistry techniques for identifying specific peptide binding sites in the brain. This multifaceted research approach not only enriches my educational experience but also opens new horizons in my academic career, a unique advantage made possible by the supportive and explorative spirit at Pomona College. The faculty’s commitment to fostering student interests has been instrumental in shaping my academic career, guiding me toward a future in the sphere of neuroscience.

Caitlin McIntyre ’24

Majoring in neuroscience at Pomona was an easy decision, confirmed by my positive experiences with Pomona’s faculty and students. My initial interest in the field was inspired by my youngest sister who was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) at age 3. In my general biology classes, I became curious about the neurological mechanisms that made up her condition. What in the brain caused her deficits in socialization? Why do so many individuals with ASD also struggle with fine motor skills? One fateful lecture on the mirror neuron system in Professor [Richard] Lewis’ “The Human Brain” course made everything make sense. I couldn’t wait to learn more! With the support of the neuroscience faculty, I’ve combined my interests in mirror neuron deficits in ASD with my other passions through my project thesis, “Utilizing Dance Movement Therapy for Autism Spectrum Disorder.” The Neuroscience Department offers the unique option for students to build a “community-based project” rather than an experimental thesis. For my project, I am excited to give back to my community by teaching a 10-week dance session in Claremont to teens and adults with disabilities. It’s rewarding to use my neuroscience education to help people like my sister.

The neuroscience program at Pomona College offers a comprehensive foundation while also encouraging exploration of one’s interests, ranging from the cellular mechanisms of neuropharmacology to the broader perspectives on human behavior. My favorite classes so far have been “The Stressed Brain” and “Psychological Disorders.” Going to a liberal arts college and taking humanities classes in addition to STEM have been invaluable, providing context for discussion of health inequities or biological ethical dilemmas. As a future healthcare professional, I believe it is so important for physicians to receive a well-rounded education, including studies in the humanities and social sciences.

Neuroscience courses at Pomona are challenging, yet rewarding. Students at Pomona are eager to learn, and our enthusiasm for the field only grows with support from faculty. Unlike lecture-based courses at larger universities, Pomona prioritizes collaboration with one’s peers and an understanding of the material beyond memorization. The beauty of a small liberal arts school is the accessibility of professors, as well as opportunities for undergraduate students to take on leadership roles through mentoring and teaching assistant positions. The Introduction to Neuroscience course, Neuro101A, is the quintessential model of such. Utilizing a flipped lecture format, class sessions are spent in small group discussions led by student mentors. This was one of the first classes where I felt completely engaged and active in my learning process. In-class activities challenged me to think outside the box and apply my learning to novel scenarios. One memorable activity was using our new knowledge of motor pathways to diagnose “patients” in the clinic. As both a student in this course and a mentor, I’ve felt the benefits of such a model for learning and a sense of community.

Outside of the classroom, I’ve participated in basic science and clinical research through the Pomona College Internship Program (PCIP). My favorite research experience has been working with children and teens with Down Syndrome through a clinical Alzheimer’s biomarker study. It felt surreal to participate in the literature review process and propose future directions. I couldn’t believe I was one of the “scientists” I was reading about in textbooks! I plan to continue my interest in neuroscience in the clinic as a physician, specializing in either pediatric or adult neurology.

Hannah Caris ’23

Ever since I took a high school course in psychology, I’ve been intrigued by the mystery and complexity of the brain. After exploring the impacts of bilingualism on executive functioning in my International Baccalaureate Extended Essay, my desire to learn about the biological basis of behavior only grew. Neuroscience seemed to be the perfect interdisciplinary mix of my interests, so going into college I was excited to finally have the opportunity to explore this field in earnest.

The best part of the Neuroscience Department is the talented, dedicated and accessible faculty—likely a feature universal at Pomona. The major itself is very flexible and includes courses from many departments, giving you opportunities to explore neuroscience with a multi-faceted lens. Last semester, I took Introduction to Computational Neuroscience, which focused on mathematical modeling of neural activity and also tied into concepts I was learning about concurrently in physics and in Introduction to Neuroscience.

One of my favorite parts about being a neuroscience major are the seemingly limitless unanswered questions, and consequently, opportunities to conduct exciting and meaningful research. In my first year at Pomona, I worked in Professor Jonathan King’s lab, where we used electrophysiological techniques to study the effects of ziram fungicide exposure on long-term potentiation in rats. I continued to work with Professor King last summer in the Remote Alternative Independent Summer Experience (RAISE), where I explored ginsenoside mediation of neuroinflammation and oxidative stress in Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases. This summer project, coupled with a previous research experience at a behavioral neuroimmunology lab, sparked my current interest in the field of neuroimmunology, which I hope to pursue after graduation.

Riya Sivakumar ’23

The unknown had always bothered me. As a kid, I pestered my parents to explain everything from how traffic lights changed to how X-rays detected my broken arm. While many of my questions had easily searchable answers, as I grew older, they became increasingly complicated. I soon began to deliberate why and how I wondered so much. I wanted to know if I was the only one questioning these things and if so, why? What made my thought process unique and what shaped it to its current state? Questions of the mind and body became my primary concern as I overloaded my high school schedule with every science class I could. My exploration through the sciences led me to take a neuroscience elective in my junior year. My teacher presented the field as one of the questions, rather than the concrete answers we had grown to expect from our previous science classes. From that first class I was hooked. I kept my options open when coming to Pomona, but after taking my first neuroscience course this past fall I knew it was what I wanted to major in. The interdisciplinary nature of the field allows you to draw knowledge from biology, chemistry, psychology, and even philosophy and apply it to the human brain. The bounds of neuroscience are seemingly limitless as everyday new questions are being asked about human nature and behavior. Now, rather than bother me, the unknown motivates me.

I never anticipated that I would take my first neuroscience class online, or that I would be confident enough in my own passion to declare my major after only a semester. However, the Neuroscience Department at Pomona made online learning such an engaging, collaborative, and enjoyable experience that after just a few weeks of class I was convinced. While Zoom class had its ups and downs, my professor’s enthusiasm for the material and teaching made each class a worthwhile experience. I felt incredibly supported by the department in both class and lab and found an amazing community in my peers. I am really excited for my future in the major and I know that this next semester will be great.

This past semester, for one of our virtual lab reports, we analyzed data from the Aging, Dementia, and Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) study done at the Allen Brain Institute. In my group we specifically looked at the gene MAT2A, which is involved in DNA methylation. Using hippocampal gene expression data from the study we focused on MAT2A's relative expression in patients with varying numbers of TBI. Utilizing gene expression data is integral to better understanding the progression of neurodegenerative diseases like dementia as well as the debilitating long-term effects of TBI. While we were unable to be in lab due to the nature of this semester, we were still able to learn and practice valuable data analysis and lab report writing skills.