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Why I Majored in Neuroscience

Megan Chang ’21

I have always loved how the seen and the unseen are made richer and more complex by one another. That intricacy is the reason the science of medicine and the art of storytelling blend harmoniously to me. There is a general perception that arts and sciences are singular disciplines and not compatible; while one may become a successful cardiologist or famous writer, one does not become both. For so long, I stood at a crossroads - I knew I loved medicine, but I wasn’t prepared to leave my creative side behind. Wrestling with the two seemingly opposite paths for years, I began to wonder whether it was possible for the two to eventually merge.

A Pomona professor once told me that the reason he loves neuroscience is because you can use neurobiology to explain psychological phenomena and states, and also take a psychological phenomenon and reduce it to neurobiological mechanism. I decided to major in neuroscience for a very similar reason, as I believe it is an area of study that is the perfect intersection of the physical and the abstract. Through the neuroscience program, I have been able to explore both the “why” and “how” of human behavior.

During the summer of 2019, I also had the opportunity to do independent research at Columbia University Medical Center through the Pomona College Internship Program (PCIP). I chose to do my research on sociological health care barriers such as stigma, giving me the opportunity to interview and talk to patients and providers and hear their stories. By using neuroscience as a platform to explore the combination of medicine and the arts, I hope to find richer, more complex human interactions.

Glory Aimufua ’22

“Why major in neuroscience?” Like most students, I was not able to take a neuroscience class until I got to college. So how could I be sure neuroscience was for me. In retrospect, though none of my courses in high school were entitled “Neuroscience,” many of them addressed topics that are central to the field. I remember one teacher introducing us to the idea that drugs can rewire our brains and actually create addiction. From this and other courses, I began to understand the extent to which the environment can rewire the brain, and I was fascinated by this.

My favorite part of majoring in neuroscience is the variety of classes we get to take and topics we get to explore. From addressing memory, vertebrates, pathology, computational networks. We get to explore every facet of human nature through a neurological lens! In many of our classes, professors give us the freedom to write research proposals on different topics that fascinate us in the course. One particular moment in Human Brain [course], we were learning about REM sleep and I wrote a proposal investigating whether watching horror movies trigger nightmares. Basic life curiosities, but I was able to properly investigate this question using the neurological tools I learned in this course.

Not only do we explore life’s greatest questions, but have you seen our study lounge in Lincoln Hall! We get to enjoy the best view and nap on the softest couches in the entire Pomona College campus. 

To the future neuroscientists, don't get discouraged by the prerequisites! We are one of the few majors that have to wait at least a year to finally take an intro class but trust me it’s all worth it.

Jessica Kuo ’22

My journey with neuroscience began when I worked as a research assistant in Professor Jonathan King’s lab, where I got to use electrophysiology to study the hippocampus. My love for the intricate research process and my curiosity for the human brain led me to realize that I wanted to major in neuroscience. Neuroscience research is something that could never wear me out because there are still so many unanswered questions, so many puzzles to solve and pieces of knowledge to unpack.

To explore my interest in neurological disorders, I wrote a literature review last summer on ginseng, synaptic plasticity and epilepsy through the RAISE Program. Conducting remote research in 2020 sometimes made me forget that science is a visceral experience—the work that is done in the lab translates into smiles of gratitude, sighs of relief, and stronger blood and bones in hundreds and thousands of people. The body is tangible, and so are the impacts of scientific research. This is why I want to pursue neuroscience research, to explore and experiment and create the groundwork from which others can benefit and thrive off of.

I would not have found my way onto this exciting path if it weren’t for the support of the Neuroscience Department. The faculty here are some of the kindest and most passionate people who want to help their students succeed, and they challenge you to think differently and think critically. From taking notes during lectures to doing research in labs, every opportunity in the department is a chance to learn. I have learned so much from the faculty and from my peers, who have all helped contribute to my drive to become a better scientist.

As a cellist and a music minor, I have had the joy and privilege of performing in Lyman Hall and Little Bridges. I have also taken exciting classes in music theory and music history that have deepened my appreciation of music. Neurologist Oliver Sacks states that music activates more parts of the brain than any other stimulus—I was fascinated by this idea and wanted to bridge my love for neuroscience and music to explore this further, a testament to the interdisciplinary approach that being a student at Pomona has fostered in me over the years. This semester, I am working on a project that explores cognitive function and dementia in older adult classical musicians. I am eager to be back in the lab in the future to acquire more hands-on experiences, but I am just as excited about this remote research project which I feel deeply passionate about.

Christine Lin ’22

I have always enjoyed an interdisciplinary approach to learning, since learning different subjects helped me to build a comprehensive understanding of both my studies and the world. Coming to Pomona, I found that neuroscience provided exactly the interdisciplinary study that I wanted from my college experience. I enjoy the flexibility to understand the brain and behavior from either a molecular or behavioral perspective (or both!) and I appreciate how much the field is still growing since there is this constant excitement of having more to explore and learn. Often during lectures, my professors would give disclaimers that some of what we were learning is still being researched and would encourage us to go and research these topics in the future and come back and tell them what we found!

My favorite class that I have taken at Pomona so far has been Seminar in Social Neuroscience, which consisted of five other students besides myself. Throughout the semester, one student would lead each class on a discussion of a certain topic of social neuroscience by sharing what they found interesting, connecting it to other research articles and asking thought-provoking questions to other students. The final project for the class was to present a comprehensive research proposal for any topic related to social neuroscience. It was so interesting to see the different aspects that each of us chose to focus on and it reminded me once again, of how diverse the field of neuroscience is and how there is still so much left to explore!

Emily Rainge ’22

Science has always been my favorite subject, as it is a collection of concepts that do not involve a straight and narrow path to a result or answer. It requires experimentation and exploration without borders, and that is what I love the most about science. I love being able to search my brain for creative methods for finding my way to a solution. I think about the activities that I’ve loved doing throughout my life, like watching documentaries or knitting, and these activities continue to invoke a sense of inquiry and repetition, fundamentals that make up the heart of science. The curiosity that came out of the mundane, asking questions like, “I wonder what makes cocoa beans so bitter?” or “Why does eating bread make people full so quickly?” or “What causes a rainbow to appear?” is the type of learning that I experience great delight in exploring. I’ve always had a thing for observing people. Not in a weird way. But observing how people use their body language towards other people. How people talk, how people walk. I wonder about the chemicals in the brain that shape people’s actions and thoughts. I’m fascinated by what makes people unique from others. I want to understand how our brains differ from one another because our brains are what make us form our individual thoughts and opinions.  Majoring in neuroscience at Pomona has allowed me to explore so many facets of my interests, including the cellular mechanisms that occur within the brain when drugs are introduced, as well as the more behavior-based psychological and sociological aspects of neuroscience.

My science classes at Pomona College have been challenging in the best way possible, and they have pushed me to rewire how I think about and pursue problem-solving, and that’s a huge reason why I’m enjoying the major so much. I love that there are so many different branches of neuroscience that you can take courses in and that we’re encouraged to explore as many of them as we can. In my major courses, my peers have been so collaborative and supportive, and for me, that makes the department feel like an amazing safe space. My professors have also been really amazing, caring and encouraging, and they motivate me every day to want to continue my pursuit in neuroscience. My favorite class in the major so far has been Neuropharmacology with Professor Karen Parfitt. It’s definitely the class that made me realize that I really enjoy learning about how different drugs affect the brain.

I love that neuroscience at Pomona is so interdisciplinary. In the summer of 2019, I did a research project with both the Neuroscience and Chemistry Departments, working with Professor Charles Taylor and Professor Elizabeth Glater. I spent the summer analyzing the chemical components of different bacteria types and studying if microscopic worms called C. elegans showed a preference for them under certain conditions. In Summer 2020, I expanded on that research by participating in Pomona’s Remote Alternate Intensive Summer Experience (RAISE). With the guidance of Professor Taylor, I used Web of Science, PubMed, and other scientific search engines to do a deep dive into the background research of coevolution of C. elegans with S. marcescens, the Red Queen hypothesis, two-dimensional gas chromatography-mass spectrometry, and articles that linked these topics together. My research helped me to learn about a lot of different methods that are used in other labs to study and analyze parasite behaviors and host-parasite interactions, and using this new knowledge, I was able to produce a written report of original experiments that could guide our lab in figuring out how GCMS analysis could help us further navigate how host-parasite relationships and coevolutionary changes between C. elegans and S. marcescens occur, and I would love to be able to carry out these experiments when we return to campus. I feel so lucky that I’ve been able to learn so much through research during my time at Pomona, even remotely.

One more thing: Also, when you declare neuroscience, you also receive a really cute mug!

Roland Scott ’22

In high school I was fortunate enough to have a great science teacher my sophomore year who taught an elective in neurobiology. Having loved her first course, I decided to take the neurobiology class for the teacher and ended up becoming fascinated with the subject. That class introduced me to the field of neuroscience and led me to take biology and chemistry prerequisites to be able to take the Neuroscience 101 course my sophomore year at Pomona, which was the final factor that convinced me neuroscience was the right major for me.

The Neuroscience Department and major allow for the combination of what I consider to be some of the most interesting aspects of biology, chemistry and psychology. With the introductory neuroscience course, students get to see a wide cross-section of the seemingly infinite possibilities of the field. In the Human Brain [course], students get to see the underlying molecular mechanisms of many phenomena observed in psychology. These ideas are dissected using biology and chemistry to explain how diseases develop and how all of our behavior correlates to chemical reactions in our brains. I am looking forward to getting to spend even more time exploring the molecular and genetic mechanisms for how our brains develop and continue to function for decades. Even the most basic questions become incredibly complex when you begin to dissect the neuroscience, which is something that has always drawn me towards the field.

In the summer after my sophomore year, I was lucky enough to participate in the Summer Honors Undergraduate Research Program at Harvard Medical School, organized by the Leadership Alliance. Although the program was virtual, I was still able to make meaningful contributions to a research project being spearheaded by a post-doctoral fellow in the lab. Following the summer internship, I have been fortunate enough to continue working with the lab this year since I can work remotely. The lab generally focuses on child neurological diseases and the project I have been most involved in is studying succinic semialdehyde dehydrogenase (SSADH) deficiency. SSADH is an enzyme in the brain involved in recycling the inhibitory neurotransmitter GABA. This is a rare, genetically inherited disease that usually appears early in life with symptoms such as epilepsy, cognitive impairments, and language deficits. The lab is using a new technique involving induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) to study this disease wherein they take cells from patients and reprogram to be neurons so that they are able to study how the cells grow, communicate, and eventually dysfunction. Since I have been remote, I have been contributing by analyzing the imaging data that the members of the lab record. Although it is certainly not how I had imagined research, it has been an incredibly meaningful experience, since I have been able to see the functions and research throughout a mid-sized research lab at a more research-focused institution.

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.