The office shelves of Arizona State University scientists are usually lined with books related to their research. Neuroendocrinology books and oversized atlases of the brain fill the office of ASU’s Heather Bimonte-Nelson, but her shelves are also covered with bedazzled and bejeweled picture frames that all show a beaming scientist surrounded by smiling students.
The beaming scientist is Bimonte-Nelson herself, who heads the Behavioral Neuroscience of Memory and Aging lab in the Department of Psychology. She is the 2018 recipient of the Michael A. Cusanovich Bioscience Educator of the Year Award. Bimonte-Nelson was nominated for the prestigious honor by six of her current and former students: Stephanie Koebele, Laura Mahady, Gail Stonebarger, Isabel Strouse, Alesia Prakapenka and Victoria Woner.
“I admire Heather for conducting rigorous and methodical research, and I appreciate her strong work ethic, hands-on mentoring style, and her advocacy for educating the public about science,” said Koebele, who is a graduate student in the Bimonte-Nelson lab.
The importance of asking why
Bimonte-Nelson, professor of psychology, studies how hormones like estrogen or progesterone affect the brain. She has looked at how the presence or absence of hormones changes the brain and what role hormones play in the differences between male and female brains. Currently, her lab focuses on how hormones impact memory across the life span. The work happening in the Behavioral Neuroscience of Memory and Aging lab is highly relevant to the study of understanding normal aging processes as well as Alzheimer’s disease.
“Aside from all her accomplishments as a scientist, what really stands out about Heather is her truly remarkable and endless dedication to her students as a professor,” said Strouse, an undergraduate student who works in the Bimonte-Nelson lab. “She wants nothing more than for her students to succeed, regardless of how long she has mentored them, and she honors her position as a mentor.”
Bimonte-Nelson considers training future scientists as important as her research.
“One day we will all be gone. The papers we’ve published will remain, and so will the students we’ve trained,” she said. “Who will continue trying to answer the questions that frame science? Who will keep asking, ‘Why?’”
The relationships among hormones and the brain are complicated, like a giant jigsaw puzzle. There are many hormones, and they interact with each other, with the brain and with behavior.
Members of the Bimonte-Nelson lab do not focus on what they think the data might show. Instead, she has her students focus on why an experiment proceeds in a certain way. The emphasis on the process instead of the outcome forces students to think critically.
“Worrying about whether your hypothesis is or is not supported by the data is not what generates good science,” Bimonte-Nelson said. “We want to know why the data do or do not support a hypothesis; that is how we begin to understand nature.”
Bimonte-Nelson describes her approach to critical thinking as encouraging her students to take a bird’s-eye perspective, or a 30,000-foot view. From that vantage point, she encourages her students to look at the jigsaw puzzle pieces — the hormones, their interactions and brain connections — all together. Taking this perspective can mean the students have to backtrack during an experiment and re-analyze data.
“Sometimes the most exciting findings in science are unexpected,” Bimonte-Nelson said. “I always tell my students congratulations that they discovered a truth in nature. Now their job is to go figure out why.”
Bimonte-Nelson credits her graduate adviser, the late Victor Denenberg, with training her both as a scientist and mentor.
“He taught me to be a scientist but also to trust myself. He told me I was smarter than I thought I was, and that changed me,” she said.
She passes that lesson on to her students, trying to empower them with knowledge and their own voice so they can ask difficult questions about data and have the courage to question dogma in the field.
“I love it when my students argue with me!”
Paying it forward
The bedazzled picture frames in Bimonte-Nelson’s office are not the only indication of what her students mean to her. The walls and shelves are plastered with cards and letters from students, and they all express gratitude.
Bimonte-Nelson is known for helping her students decide which courses to take and what to do next with their lives. She even vets potential graduate advisers.
“Heather practiced interview questions with me, read over copies of resumes and personal statements and gave me tips for interviewing at graduate schools across the country, but my experience is not unique,” said Woner, a psychology graduate student and former undergraduate in the Bimonte-Nelson lab. “There are dozens of students in her lab, and each are given the same personal attention and care.”
Former students regularly send Bimonte-Nelson email and text messages. Some let her know how their research is going, while others send pictures that show they learned another lesson from Bimonte-Nelson’s mentorship: the importance of outreach to the community, especially to children.
Her advocacy efforts go beyond her own students: Bimonte-Nelson is passionate about introducing underprivileged children and younger generations to science. Her lab hosts the annual ASU Brain Fair for Children and partners with local high schools to get students interested in science and working in laboratories.
“Several former students have started their own brain fairs across the country,” Bimonte-Nelson said. “It is so rewarding to know my students do outreach without me. They know the importance of educating and empowering the younger generations, and that is one way that I define success as a mentor.”
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