Students from Western’s Behavioral Neuroscience (BNS) program attended the Society for Neuroscience conference in Washington D.C. in November to present their research to other neuroscientists.
The conference brings in about 30,000 neuroscientists from around the world to share research on the brain and nervous system. There are also professional development workshops and resources available to attendees of the conference. At the Society for Neuroscience conference, the majority of research being presented is by post-doctoral researchers and graduate students. However, eight undergraduate BNS students represented WWU at the conference and presented their findings to the group.
The BNS students who attended the conference were Lauren Hoffmann (Spokane), Jessica O’Sell (Kenmore), Russell Marx (Shoreline), Rachel Gatlin (Wenatchee), Alex Loftus (Bainbridge Island), Micaela Pribic (Buckley), Madeleine Hopkins (Redmond) and Alex McCoy (Longview). The students were also accompanied by WWU faculty members such as Janet Finlay, associate professor of Psychology and director of the BNS program; Jackie Rose, associate professor of Psychology; Jeffery Grimm, professor of Psychology; and Yuliya Rybalka, BNS program coordinator.
Students in the Behavioral Neuroscience program helped generate money to support their travel costs. BNS students hosted an event associated with WWU Give Day called “Stay up for Student Research” which resulted in $10,000 in gift support from alumni, current students and community supporters. These gifts helped fund one of the research lab groups’ travel to the event. Originally, O’Sell had expected that she and her lab mates (Hoffman, Marx and Galtin) would be expected to pay their own way to the conference.
“I was so excited and honored that we were able to receive this support. It really meant a lot that the department and donors strive to support research efforts and conference attendance and that we were able to attend and represent Western,” O’Sell said.
O’Sell and Hoffmann’s research lab presented research on Huntington’s disease, a genetic disease with no cure.
“One of the great things about Western is that there aren’t very many graduate students, especially in the sciences, so undergraduate students get the opportunity to do graduate level research,” Hoffman said. “I have been able to get my hands on things that usually you aren’t able to do until the end of your graduate career.”
After working on their research for two years, O’Sell and Hoffman’s group decided to submit their abstract to the Society for Neuroscience and the research was accepted and they were invited to present their research at the conference. Seeing their research progress from start to finish over two years was a humbling experience for the BNS students.
“It was gratifying to summarize and present all of our hard work from the past two years, and be able to discuss the meaning and wider application of our findings” O’Sell said.
Both O’Sell and Hoffmann felt stimulated by their experiences at the conference, not only in presenting their research, but in meeting other behavioral neuroscientists and students as well.
“I was so thrilled to be immersed in so much science, especially science that I was likeminded with. It was 30,000 people who thought the same way I did and found the same things interesting,” Hoffmann said.
Janet Finlay oversaw the lab’s research from when they started until they presented at the conference, she said she was proud of the hard work her students put into their research and presentation.
“In a word, I would describe it was ‘WOW!’” Finlay said.
Even though most attendees of the event are not undergraduate students, the WWU students were frequently mistaken for graduate students because of the caliber of their work, Finlay said.
“A colleague sought me out after the student presentation specifically to comment on how impressed she was with the quality of the students and extend an invitation for students to apply to her association for summer research stipends,” Finlay said.
The conference is a great way for students to network and discuss research with neuroscientists at all career levels, from trainees to internationally acclaimed, Nobel-prize winning scientists, Finlay said. The conference is also beneficial for students to learn more about how neuroscience research is being done all over the world.
“I would absolutely recommend other undergraduates, especially those who want to attend grad school, to take any opportunities they have to conduct research with professors at Western and to seek out opportunities to attend conferences,” O’Sell said. “The presentation experience gained and the connections you can make are so valuable to future career or educational goals.”
The mission of Behavioral Neuroscience program at Western is to support education, research and service in behavioral neuroscience. In 2005, Behavioral Neuroscience became an interdisciplinary undergraduate major and in 2007 the Washington State Legislature provided additional funding and support for the program as well. For more information on the Behavioral Neuroscience program at WWU visit https://wp.wwu.edu/bnsprogram/