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Neuro Orleans

ONU researchers get noticed at the Society of Neuroscience annual meeting.

Perhaps there is no better city in America to host a conference of neuroscientists than New Orleans, La. Some personalities in the French Quarter alone could keep them fascinated for days.

But for the 10 past and present Ohio Northern University research assistants who traveled to the Big Easy last month to present at Neuroscience 2012, the 42nd annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience, the trip was serious business.  

Dr. Phillip Zoladz, assistant professor of psychology, organized the trip to give the students who have worked in his research labs over the past few years valuable experience presenting at an international conference. Their research focuses on the effects stress has in cognitive functions like learning and memory in both humans and rodents.

“Just by attending the annual meeting for the Society for Neuroscience, my students were able to get exposure to some of the cutting-edge research that is taking place in many neuroscience disciplines. Moreover, the conference provided the students with an opportunity to network with many well-renowned researchers from across the globe and to discover some of the areas of neuroscience research that may be most appealing to them as a career path in the future,” says Zoladz.

Of ONU’s contingent, half were alumni presenting work they contributed to while undergraduate researchers at ONU. Hanna Burke, BA ’11, Ashlee Warnecke, BA ’11, Rachael Frigo, BA ’11, are currently enrolled in graduate programs at the University of Dayton, Chatham University and Eastern Kentucky University, respectively. Another alumni conference presenter, Sarah Woelke, BA ’12, is currently working as a laboratory technician at Ohio State University.

Zoladz currently has 12 research assistants working in his lab, of which half presented research in New Orleans: Julia Pisansky, a senior psychology major from Canfield, Ohio; Mackenzie Hoffman, a senior psychology major from Strongsville, Ohio; Rachael Aufdenkampe, a junior psychology major from Vermilion, Ohio; Andrea Kalchik, a junior psychology major from Zanesville, Ohio; Cristina Robinson, a junior molecular biology and psychology major from Mentor, Ohio; and Kyle Dexter, a junior psychology major from Hartville, Ohio.

“The conference was truly amazing. Our lab works very hard, and it was such a great feeling to present our hard work to people all over the world. Many people I talked to were amazed that we were doing undergraduate research; most thought we were at the graduate level,” says Pisansky.

According to Zoladz, it is somewhat rare for undergraduates to present before the Society of Neuroscientists. The conference annually draws 30,000 to 40,000 scientists from all over the world, with the majority of presenters being graduate students or postdoctoral fellows.

“The fact that we had undergraduate students presenting was not overlooked. Many scientists who visited our posters praised our involvement of undergraduate students in such rigorous, scientifically sound work,” he says.

Perhaps then, it’s no surprise why so many of Zoladz research assistants go on to enroll in graduate programs. The education and research opportunities they receive at Northern prepare them for the rigors of advanced study. This kind of preparation is a core tenant of ONU’s educational mission.

The Getty College of Arts & Sciences directly supported the trip by providing financial assistance for transportation and accommodations. Such an investment represents the college’s commitment to providing students with unique experiential learning opportunities.

“When ONU students present the results of their research at professional conferences, they have an opportunity to share their original contributions to knowledge and practice and to gain valuable feedback from experts in their fields,” says Catherine Albrecht, dean of the Getty College of Arts and Sciences. “We support engaged learning across all disciplines, and undergraduate research and conference participation are among the activities that deepen students' learning and engage them with the broader community of scholars.”

For the students, the trip was an experience they won’t soon forget and, perhaps for Pisansky, an indicator of things to come.

“I am so excited to see what life after ONU has in store for me because the opportunities I have received thus far have been truly extraordinary!” she says.