A Neuro Network: Bowdoin Neuroscientists at a Meeting of the Minds

by Selby Frame

Photos by Barry Myers

Neuron

Since its inception in the mid-1990s, Bowdoin's neuroscience department has grown into one of the best known programs for developing undergraduate neuroscience researchers in the country. When a group of Bowdoin professors and students travelled to a national conference this fall, they put on display not only their research, but also their status in the field.

You haven't seen the Bowdoin network in action until you've gone to a professional conference. Take just one day at the 2005 Annual Conference of the Society for Neuroscience (SFN) in Washington, D.C.

In a humongous exhibition hall jammed with thousands of scientific poster presentations, a small crowd is gathering around single poster. It's where the queen bee of Bowdoin neuroscience modestly displays a year's worth of research - Bowdoin neuroscience chair Patsy Dickinson, in trademark pigtails.

In the course of four hours, Patsy will be visited by groups of current Bowdoin neuroscience students, a string of alumni stretching back to the '80s, scientists in whose labs Patsy has worked or sent students, scientists who have worked in Patsy's lab, scientists who are modeling their undergraduate labs after Bowdoin's neuroscience program, program officers checking up on Bowdoin research they have funded, and even a recent neuroscience alumna who is working at a D.C. homeless shelter. She bought herself a ticket to the conference as a graduation present.

Building a Neuro Program
4_profs.jpg

Left to right: Neuroscience program Associate Professor Richmond "Rick" Thompson, Professor and Chair Patsy Dickinson, and Assistant Professors Seth Ramus and Hadley Horch.

Bowdoin's neuroscience program isn't large. It consists of four professors - two from biology (Professor and Chair Patsy Dickinson and Assistant Professor Hadley Horch) and two from psychology (Assistant Professor Seth Ramus and Associate Professor Richmond "Rick" Thompson).

Together, however, their research areas span the major lines of inquiry in the field.

Hadley is a molecular neuroscientist. Her current work centers on the regeneration of auditory neurons in crickets, part of larger research that scientists hope may lead to breakthroughs in treating spinal chord injuries. Patsy's research on crustaceans looks at the basic physiology of neurons that are responsible for generating different patterns of movement, such as running or walking.

Seth and Rick are systems neuroscientists, meaning that they work with whole animals. Seth is studying how olfactory memory is stored in rat brains. His goal is to understand how these neurons communicate and pass learned information to one another. Rick's research leaps across several species, a rarity in the highly specialized world of neuroscience. He studies the neuropeptide vasotocin - which is believed to mediate behaviors including mating and aggression - in newts, goldfish and lately, in humans.

It took over 15 years for the College to put together this team. It was an effort spearheaded in part by Patsy, who joined Bowdoin in 1983. When she began teaching neuroscience at Bowdoin, Patsy was part of a two-person psychobiology team. She also was the only female member of the science faculty (there now are roughly a dozen).

In those days, serious undergraduate neuroscience education was largely the domain of major research institutions, with courses taught primarily by graduate students. Lab experiments were canned.

Recognizing the growing importance of neuroscience - and the advantages of a liberal arts setting for training new scientists one-on-one - the College began to actively build a program that could match, and in some ways best, what students would find at larger institutions.

Neuroscience was formally established as an interdisciplinary major at Bowdoin in 1981. Since that time, the College has graduated nearly 150 neuroscience students - the majority of whom have gone on to medical schools or Ph.D. programs.

"What made me feel it was really worth it," recalls Patsy, "is the fact that the students I had who wanted to be neuroscientists were really top-notch students. Some of the best I've ever had. And we also saw it as a way of recruiting really good students to Bowdoin as well."

With support from private donors, the College recently expanded its science infrastructure, including an additional 5,400-sq. foot science complex for neuroscience. Faculty members have received numerous grants to purchase state-of-the-art research instrumentation, including a confocal microscope and a scanning electron microscope with x-ray analysis. Bowdoin is one of the only undergraduate institutions in the nation to have a MALDI/FTMS mass spectrometer and electron backscatter diffractometer.

"At Bowdoin we have active research labs so we can actively involve students in real research with their professors," notes Seth Ramus. "It's one of the reasons we've been very strong in the sciences for a while, and it's why you see Bowdoin students' names with their professors on papers in some of the top professional journals."

Neuroscience faculty research and programs have received funding from the National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health, Howard Hughes Medical Institution, Support of Mentors and their Students in the Neurosciences, The Grass Foundation, The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, The Merck/AAAS Undergraduate Science Research Program, The Paller Research Fellowship, and Research Corporation, among others.

"It's pretty mind-boggling," says Patsy, "but these things are always like this. You stand here long enough, and people you know will find you. And at Bowdoin, we've had students going into neuroscience for a long time, many of whom stay in reasonably related fields. This is the one place you can see them every year."

The homing phenomenon is even more splendid when you consider there are 35,000 conference attendees from around the globe swarming the cavernous decks of the D.C. Convention Center.

Hidden among the slightly geeky throngs are a dozen current Bowdoin neuroscience students.

They are the lucky few who have been selected by their professors to accompany them on a trip to the Big Leagues. Some will check out potential graduate schools, others will make possible lab job contacts, at least one will jump from neuroscience to biochemistry, most will stay up too late, forget to eat, and do a little Capitol partying.

And some will do something exceedingly rare - present their own research.

Poster2.jpg
Braulio Peguero '05 explaining a point from one of the posters.

It's unusual enough to see undergrads at a national scientific meeting (fewer than 300 are registered for this one); it's a privilege usually reserved for graduate students and post-docs. It's almost unheard of to see undergraduates presenting work they co-authored with professors.

Today, the posters presented by Patsy and her Bowdoin colleagues Associate Professor Rick Thompson and Assistant Professor Seth Ramus are being staffed by student researchers who have had a hand - often a large one - in the research.

Among those at Patsy's poster is Braulio Peguero '05, who helped her identify and quantify the function of a new peptide she discovered in 2003 with Bowdoin chemistry professor Beth Stemmler.

"I worked to prepare the data and graphs on last year's poster," says Braulio, with the hint of an accent (his family is originally from the Dominican Republic). "It was my work that was being presented to Ph.D.'s and graduate students, which felt really good. It made me feel important that I had contributed something."

Pioneering a Practice
When Patsy and her colleagues first started bringing Bowdoin students here in the mid-'90s, their students were literally the only undergraduates in evidence.

Christie88_Patsy.jpg
Andy Christie '88 and Patsy Dickinson.

"My peers thought it was great," says Patsy. "They all wanted me to send my students to them for graduate school. Now there are more and more undergrads coming from other schools. It's a good trend."

Across the exhibition hall, Jena Davis '06 stands poised next to research she did last summer with Seth Ramus.

She is explaining to a Norwegian scientist neuronal data she has been recording from the orbital frontal cortex of rats as they learn about odors. It is part of Seth's ongoing cognitive research on memory. To get the data, Jena had to build and implant electrodes into the rats' brains using highly skilled microsurgical procedures, then train them to recognize and remember specific odor sequences.

"Look at her," says Seth, beaming paternally. "All of a sudden she's the expert." He lets fly his trademark laugh. "She's really holding her own. I think most people drifting by the poster do not realize it's an undergraduate."

poster1.jpg
Jena Davis '06 explains her research.

But there are those who do. In fact, some seek out Bowdoin faculty posters precisely because they want to learn from the College's model of undergraduate research.

Karen Mesce, a neuroscientist from the University of Minnesota, St. Paul, has stopped by Patsy's poster for a chat.

"I think it's great that undergrads have the opportunity to work with top-notch research scientists and then come to conferences like this," she says, breaking from a conversation with one of Patsy's undergraduate "charges."

"You don't see that much in neuroscience, but I do know that a very select group of institutions like Bowdoin will occasionally have undergrads come. I encourage my students to get involved in science early on ... but I have to say I've never had an undergrad come to a conference."

JoAnne Chu, a neuroscience professor at Spelman College, is even more vested: "I look to institutions like Bowdoin to benchmark where I want to be," she says. "When I come here and see all these students and how excited they are to be at this meeting and be part of the process, it's inspiring for me. And yet, it makes me realize how far we have to go."

“It was my work that was being presented to Ph.D.'s and graduate students, which felt really good. It made me feel important that I had contributed something..” —Braulio Peguero '05

Talking Science
Not everyone is on poster duty, however. Some students are free to explore the convention center, which is filled with posters, vendors, seminar rooms, and a coursing stream of informally-clad scientists. ("I always joke that I'm a neuroscience major because there are so many attractive people," quips one student.)

"I have to say, I'm just kind of overwhelmed," says Elizabeth "EB" Sheldon '07, wandering through the tide of people pushing past. She is one of the few Bowdoin neuroscience students here who is certain she wants to go into medicine, as opposed to research. She is using the conference to scope out medical schools and attend more clinically-centered symposia.

"Most of my professors don't have any real connections to medical schools," she says, stopping to look at a vendor's table marked, "Brain Bits! Need More Neurons? Get Precisely Dissected Live Hippocampus!"

"But we have a great program, and people everywhere know that. It's one of the reasons I wanted to come to Bowdoin. We have great professors and it's really challenging."

EB has been working on research with Associate Professor Hadley Horch, also a neuroscience professor, whose work centers on the regeneration of auditory neurons in crickets. Like most of the students here, EB has received a grant or fellowship to do summer research at Bowdoin.

Her job? "Do you really want to know?" she asks, smiling sweetly.

"I'm trying to sequence a gene that we believe might be involved in midline guidance. On a daily basis, I do what's called PCR - basically, you grind up the cricket you want to get a single gene out of. You add all these chemicals, which are a mix of primers and buffers and enzymes. Then you put them in this thing called a thermal cycler. It does a series of heating and cooling reactions. It extracts the gene you are looking for, hopefully. To see that, you run it on a dish with a gel in it. You inject the mix of cricket stuff into holes in the gels and run an electric current through it, which, because of polarity, it separates by size ..."

Oh, help.

One can get lost here without even going anywhere.

Cap2.jpg

"It's clear when you talk to people like EB or Braulio that they can talk about their science," chuckles Andy Christie '88, listening in. He - one of Patsy's earliest students - now heads his own undergraduate lab at the University of Washington and frequently collaborates with his former mentor on research and professional papers.

"It's because people coming out of labs like Bowdoin's where they have one-on-one interaction gives them a level of scientific experience and competency that is more mature than students I see coming out of larger programs. In large part," he adds, " It's because Bowdoin professors engage students not as glorified lab slaves, but as apprentices or colleagues."

There are cases, even, where apprentice may surpass the master. Take a certain newt brain surgery, for instance.
Rick Thompson and Patsy learned the surgery several years ago, along with then-student Kelly Dakin '02. "It allowed her to record from neurons in the newt brain associated with the control of their courtship behavior," says Rick, who has been tracking the neuropeptide vasotocin across several species for nearly a decade.

Kelly then taught the surgery to Gabe Coviello '04, who taught it to Andy Segerdahl '05, who then taught it to Alex Bender '06. "I certainly couldn't do that surgery at this point," smiles Rick, "and I don't think Patsy could either. Our students are a pretty exceptional group."

Choosing a Path
Aforementioned newt surgeon Andy Segerdahl has gathered at Rick's poster, where some of his research is on display. A returning veteran of the "real world," he is something of a celebrity among his fellow students, who are camped out in chairs in the gallery between posters. He has flown over from London, where he is now working in a HIV neuropathy lab at a hospital in Chelsea.

“People coming out of labs like Bowdoin's where they have one-on-one interaction gives them a level of scientific experience and competency that is more mature than students I see coming out of larger programs.” — Andy Christie '88

"I did what I think a lot of graduating students do: I panicked and applied everywhere," says Andy. "And I suddenly found myself in London. It was terrifying going from the intimate science environment at Bowdoin to a huge hospital. I was really nervous about it - foaming at the mouth, actually." The students roar at this.

"But it turns out that my boss is a great, great clinician, a wonderful researcher, is completely psychotic and funny. And even though I'm basically a lab techie, I'm also running my own research under a post-doc. It's a wonderful opportunity. Does not pay well, but that's okay."

The progression from stellar Bowdoin neuro student to lowly lab technician is common for many recent graduates.

"I think most of our kids do that for a year or so, and I think it's a good route," notes Rick Thompson. "I don't push any student to go right to grad school, unless they absolutely can't help themselves. It's important to spend some time in a lab to get a broader range of experience and see what's out there."

For those still in the throes of grinding crickets and performing newt surgeries, it can be hard to see the landscape they are entering and decide where they want to fit.

Seth's student researcher Jena Davis is deeply ambivalent about whether to continue on in research or apply to medical schools - though you wouldn't guess it from her focused performance at the moment.

Earlier in the morning, she was less sure of herself: "I'm still going back and forth if I want to go into medicine," she said, as she set up the poster. "I'm torn. I talked to Andy Segerdahl a lot last night about research and medicine. It was interesting to hear about research that is more translational - where you work in a more medical setting and the work you do relates more to people. I'm not sure what I want to do yet. It's hard."

Dalai_lama.jpg
The Dalai Lama has participated in dialogues with neuroscientists for more than 15 years.

She will have plenty of opportunity to scope it out. This conference offers 17,000 posters, lectures, symposia, minisymposia, workshops, meetings and events. In spite of the minutiae of scientific exploration available (e.g., "Matrix Metalloproteinases: Mediators of Central Nervous System Pathology, Plasticity, and Regeneration"), the big draw today is the Dalai Lama, who is the keynote speaker.

The exiled Tibetan spiritual leader has participated in dialogues with neuroscientists for more than 15 years.

But you can forget seeing him in person. The line to hear the Dalai Lama began three hours before his talk and snakes through several levels of the convention center before heading outdoors. Most people are splayed out on the floor in several ballrooms equipped to broadcast his talk remotely.

"This is very cool," says Segerdahl, flopping down with a small Bowdoin cluster, just as the Dalai Lama takes his place at the dais, clad in orange monk's robes.

"Hello, scientists," he says in accented and occasionally broken English. "For whatever historical reasons, today you scientists enjoy great respect and trust within society. Much more than my own discipline of philosophy and religion. Your knowledge is admired, your contributions toward humanity appreciated.

"...One can say science is also a pursuit of human value. Scientific knowledge give compelling evidence of the crucial role of simple physical touch for enlargement of infant's brain during first few weeks. This shows connection between compassion and human happiness.

"When you carry on research, it is your global responsibility to do science based on compassion. Science reach everybody - believer, non-believer both."

Even Neuroscientists Have to Eat
"Hmmm," says EB, after the speech is over. "I thought he'd talk more about his experiences with consciousness and what meditation meant for him. It was like, 'You're scientists - yea for you!' I wanted to learn more about what he does."

Cap1.jpg
Joseph Adu '07, Katherine Mitterling '06, and Jena Davis '06 in front of the Capitol.

She is chatting with other students at the Metro stop, where the entire Bowdoin clan has now gathered. The Dalai Lama is the hot topic of conversation. The plan is to head out of town and catch a convoy of cabs to a huge house in Potomac, where the annual Bowdoin neuroscience dinner will take place. The affair brings together Bowdoin neuroscience professors, collaborators, students and alumni who are within reach of the conference. It will be the only time the whole group is together.

"Wow, is this Tara or what?" says one student, emerging from a cab to a Southern-style mansion with huge white pillars.

Inside, it's a smash of people. In spite of the many rooms, everyone is crowded together in the kitchen, where countless cartons of Thai food form a well-trafficked centerpiece.

"Last year there definitely weren't as many Bowdoin people at this dinner," says Braulio, doing some serious damage to a pile of pad thai. "Actually, last year I don't think I really understood that much about the significance of all this. It wasn't until I went to the conference with Patsy that I learned about her. It was like, 'Wow! I didn't realize I'm working with someone really important.'

"Don't get me wrong!" he backtracks, laughing. "I knew she was important, but I didn't realize she was so well known. Sometimes I look at books and papers with her name on them, and they go back to the 1980s, and I'm thinking, 'I wish I could have done all that.'"

He looks around at his fellow Bowdoin lab-mates and shakes his head. "This is like the beginning of a whole new process. We're doing the next step. I feel kind of proud that the honor project students that are coming next are going to be doing work that I started. We answered the primary questions - we looked at this new peptide we discovered and how it developed in one species - but no one knows about the other species. Who knows where the peptide will be found later on? The picture of what we discovered, it's like a story being painted."

Out in the rec room, Joe Adu has less lofty things on his mind. He's sprawled on a huge sofa with his fellow lab mates.

"We had a crazy time last night," he laughs. "We went to the Ghana Pride Club. It was awesome. I got everyone in half price because I'm Ghanan."

“One of the great things about this conference, in my opinion, was that it kind of made what you were doing more relevant, made me more excited about what I'm doing. It allowed me to put my research into a greater context. I'm really starting to think this is what I want to do.” —Jena Davis '06

The crew danced until 2 a.m. before heading back to their hotels for three hours of sleep.

"We danced all night long," pipes in Braulio, who accompanied Joe and two female students on the romp. "It was crazy, 'cause the guys were watching the girls and trying to go near them and dance, so we would jump up and start dancing with them ourselves."

"Our bodyguards," the girls laugh.

Back in the kitchen with her mentor, Jena Davis is clearly flying high after her day at the posters.

"I don't know what it was that captured everybody's attention," says Seth Ramus, "but we got a lot of traffic today. Our program officer stopped by - the person who gives me money - which is always a good sign. It's long been held that undergrads can't do this level of work. I think a lot of people are interested in our success."

"The conference was really incredible," grins Jena, nibbling a broccoli tree. "Seth said it's probably the most people he's had at one of his posters since grad school. I loved presenting the research and hearing about other things going on. One of the great things about this conference, in my opinion, was that it kind of made what you were doing more relevant, made me more excited about what I'm doing. It allowed me to put my research into a greater context. I'm really starting to think this is what I want to do."

Eventually, all the food is eaten. Posses of students start heading out in taxis. The professors are left behind to do the dishes and hang with their colleagues.

"The coordination is a nightmare," says Patsy, "but we've been very happy with the effect of this conference on students. They all get energized by it ... of course, I'm in the middle of submitting a paper, getting lectures done, trying to juggle everything, but it all will get done," she says.

"Oh, and by the way," she turns and gives a bright smile. "There are five student co-authors on the next paper."

Visit the Bowdoin Neuroscience homepage.