Feature Story

School of Thought

Student and faculty researchers from across academic disciplines advance our knowledge of the brain.

School of Thought cover image

Erica Gorenberg’s fascination with the brain developed early. At a young age, she watched a documentary that explored the potential of puzzles to improve memory and brain function in people with Alzheimer’s disease. The death of a family friend who had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, pushed her curiosity about neurodegenerative disease further. When she studied neurons—the cells that transmit information throughout the nervous system— in a high school psychology class, she knew she wanted to find a college where she could study neuroscience and neurodegenerative disease in greater detail.

Gorenberg landed at Ursinus, where a neuroscience program was taking shape under Joel Bish, associate professor of psychology, who had joined the faculty in 2005 following a stint as a research fellow at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. Bish was the burgeoning program’s coordinator for the first decade of its existence, building it up from just a small handful of majors as he investigated his own questions about cognitive neuroscience and neurological development, including the impacts of concussion.

By the time Gorenberg, who graduated in 2015, returned to her alma mater to teach, interest had surged among students drawn to the interdisciplinary nature of studying the brain. Ursinus now has 63 neuroscience majors.

Gorenberg is an assistant professor of biology at Ursinus and part of a diverse and growing cohort of neuroscience faculty. As a student in the fall of 2013, she took a course called Protein Biogenesis with Dale Cameron, professor of biology, during which she learned how proteins in the brain can misfold under stress.

Macey Hoffman '26 (seated) and Erin Dychdala '26 use equipment in Prof.Joel Bish's lab to monitor brain activity. Macey Hoffman ’26 (seated) and Erin Dychdala ’26 use equipment in Prof.Joel Bish's lab to monitor brain activity.

Now—just as she did in that class— Gorenberg uses yeast as her model to study how chaperone proteins, which keep other proteins from getting out of alignment, might help reduce the likelihood or severity of neurodegenerative disease.

“I’m not trying to cure the disease,” Gorenberg said. “I’m trying to understand what’s happening so when somebody goes to cure the disease, they have a better idea of how to fix it.”

Like her faculty colleagues, whose home departments are in psychology or biology, she’s contributing her narrow focus to a broad body of research that aims to better understand the brain and its many components that shape our reality.

“I’m trying to write the instruction manual for the engine, not be the one who goes in and fixes it,” she said. “And not even the whole engine—I’m trying to fix one little piece of the engine so that one day somebody has enough information to actually fix the whole thing.”

A “Prosperous Realm” Of Research

Ursinus isn’t an R1 research institution, but it has a neuroscience program with respected faculty researchers who cover the brain and nervous system from a range of perspectives. They work closely with undergraduates eager to develop their own research skills.

With four biology professors and three in psychology, the group considers the brain’s function at all levels, from the molecular to the cellular, expanding out to the entire organism and the way we function in society.

“Neuroscience is the basis of the human condition,” Bish said, and approaching it from a variety of angles allows faculty to search for answers about the development, breakdown, and repair of the brain’s fundamental structures and how those processes influence our lives.

“As humans, it’s our brain that is responsible for how we move, how we breathe, how we think, and how we interact with the world, so trying to understand what’s happening at that level gives us a more complete picture for the questions we’re interested in,” said Jennifer Frymiare, associate professor of psychology, whose research focuses on measuring autistic traits and understanding autistic cognition.

In this “prosperous realm of research,” as Bish calls it, each Ursinus neuroscience professor occupies their own niche. For example:

Bish uses electroencephalogram (EEG) and functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS) to measure electrical activity and oxygenation in the frontal lobes of college students, seeking to better understand the effects of traumatic brain injuries. He’s found that evidence of a concussion lingers in the brain years after symptoms have faded away, offering support for more careful and cautious return-to play approaches for injured athletes.

Frymiare contemplates development through another lens, focusing on autism—and disability more broadly— to develop a clearer sense of how differently developed brains process and store information. Her work carries implications for education by interrogating questions around verbal and visual-spatial processing. It has also influenced conversations about autism by exploring the potential harm of representing it with puzzle piece imagery, as well as the media’s tendency to focus primarily on autism in children.

Carlita Favero, professor of biology and the neuroscience program’s current coordinator, takes a more microscopic approach to questions about the brain’s development. Using mice, she studies how casual drinking during pregnancy affects different cell types and the interactions between them, seeking to understand how fetal alcohol spectrum disorders alter a person’s behavior.

Like Gorenberg, Jennifer King, associate professor of biology, explores neurodegeneration. Her research centers on microglia, which she calls the “garbage collectors of the brain” because of their ability to clear cellular debris. Using mouse models, her work explores the role of microglia in the inflammatory process and their connection to neurodegenerative diseases.

Ellen Dawley, professor of biology, brings an evolutionary perspective to questions about the nervous system, studying neural stem cells in amphibians with regenerative capabilities. She marvels at the incredible neuroplasticity her subjects exhibit—operating at the other end of the spectrum from Bish’s research subjects, who may lack some of the plasticity they once had. The methods and motivations of the researchers run the gamut, but their work is united by a curiosity about how development and experience affect the functions of the nervous system.

“You’re not going to find many small liberal arts schools that have all the different kinds of neuroscience research we have,” Bish said.

The range of approaches is an integral part of capturing neuroscience in its totality, he said. The variety offers opportunities for Ursinus researchers to encounter new ideas that push their own work forward, even when a colleague’s work might seem distinct.

“If somebody put me into Carlita’s lab and said, ‘Can you pipette this fluid?’—I haven’t done that since I was in 11th grade,” Bish said. “The training is very different, but we’re all approaching the same fundamental question: How does the nervous system create this amazing function we have?”

Lauren Makuch, visiting assistant professor of neuroscience and psychology, said the balance of biology and psychology perspectives is necessary to answering the important questions that persist in neuroscience—not to mention using those answers to find ways to treat the brain.

“If you want to develop a new drug for Alzheimer’s, you need to understand Alzheimer’s at the cellular and molecular level, not just how it impacts an individual’s behavior or their social circle,” Makuch said. “But you also need the psych perspective to relate it to real life and how it impacts human behavior and the way we go about our everyday lives.”

Undergraduate research for students like Christie Cianciulli '24 enriches the process of learning about neuroscience. Undergraduate research for students like Christie Cianciulli ’24 enriches the process of learning about neuroscience.

Turning Education On Its Head

When Favero was a senior studying biology at the College of William & Mary, in Virginia, she took her first neuroscience class. At the time, it was the only one offered; now, the school offers an entire major, like Ursinus. Between biochemistry and neuroscience, she felt like she could explore the seamless ways the body and brain work together. She was hooked and went on to earn a Ph.D. in neuroscience at the University of Virginia, all based on one class that blew her away.

At Ursinus, Favero and her colleagues are trying to give that same experience to students in the classroom and in the lab. All of the research at Ursinus is student-focused, King said, in the sense that the school’s undergraduates have a hand in both conducting and shaping the direction of the work. As an example, she points to a question raised early in the pandemic by a student who wanted to know how microglial cells were affected by COVID-19. The ensuing research led to a paper demonstrating that the inflammatory response within the brain could begin within one hour of infection, offering answers to a basic science question in an urgent new area of research, she said. Neuroscience faculty say they’re often surprised and impressed by the perspective and knowledge students bring to the questions they have spent their careers seeking to answer.

“Because we’re at a liberal arts institution and we’re very balanced as scientists, we think about things with a lot of different viewpoints and we encourage our students to do the same,” Favero said.

Several members of the faculty have directed some of their research attention to better understanding how to teach neuroscience to undergraduates, publishing papers in the Journal of Undergraduate Neuroscience Education, among others. Time you’re not going to in the lab greatly enriches the process of learning about neuroscience, Bish said.

“When they get in there and start tinkering around and realize they can make mistakes and it’s not going to hurt anything, that turns the education on its head,” he said. “It makes them responsible for their own education.”

In some ways, the greatest contribution to research from Ursinus faculty, then, may be the students who get to participate in the act itself and carry what they learn forward in search of answers of their own. “I find a lot of joy and accomplishment thinking about the students that I’ve sent out into the world and into their own careers,” Dawley said. “All of us are really united in the importance of being a mentor for young scientists.”

Prof. Carlita and Allia Proctor 25 Prof. Carlita Favero (left) and Allia Proctor ’25 view a portion of the brain through a microscope.

The Ripple Effect

Jennifer King wasn’t always sure that research was right for her. Like so many others, she had long sought to understand how the brain works, focusing her attention on neuropharmacology. It wasn’t until she conducted her first study with an animal model that she knew she was in the right place. After administering a drug to the mice in her study, she could see the tangible improvements in their memory.

“It just amazed me that in the lab we could create something or make changes in an animal model that could be beneficial and possibly help people outside of the laboratory setting,” she said.

Now, as she pours her time and attention into microglia and the brain’s inflammatory processes, she’s working toward that goal. She wants her research to help build an understanding about neurodegenerative disease that can make therapeutic development possible.

Gorenberg, her counterpart in neurodegeneration research, acknowledges that it will require the work of scientists across the neuroscience spectrum, many of whom are at much larger institutions with far greater resources, to reach that point. But Ursinus’s researchers still have an important role to play, chipping away at the parts of the problem they can reach so their contributions might ripple forward in time.

“I’m doing this work now and in 100 years somebody’s going to cure Alzheimer’s disease and a paper they cite will have cited a paper that cited another paper that cited my work,” Gorenberg said.

For his part, Bish’s search for answers is driven by a desire to lend clarity to the once-murky machinations of the brain, so all our accumulated knowledge might lead us toward better, healthier lives.

“From my perspective, the human condition is defined by all of our nervous systems and how we interact with them,” he said. “The better we understand how our nervous systems react in different environmental contexts, the better we can shape our world in a way that is actually beneficial.”

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