New undergraduate research program promotes diversity in neuroscience

February 26, 2019

The World Health Organization is targeting neurological diseases as one of the greatest threats to public health. In industrialized countries, deaths from neurological disease has increased from 30 to 40 percent during the last decade.

And now, health organizations such as National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke are concerned there may not be enough scientists doing neurological research in the future to find answers to emerging health problems. Workforce Inclusion in Neuroscience through Undergraduate Research Experience ASU graduate student Samantha Scott and professor Janet Neisewander look at images of brain scans. Neisewander created the Workforce Inclusion in Neuroscience through Undergraduate Research Experience program to promote diversity in neurological fields. Photo by Samantha Lloyd/ASU VisLab Download Full Image

One problem is that the most rapidly growing demographics in the United States are not equally represented in STEMScience, technology, engineering and math graduate programs. In fact, only 8 percent of STEM doctorates were earned by underrepresented and minority students in 2014.

Some health organizations have expressed growing concern that neuroscience research will be hit particularly hard by this lack of representation.

Janet Neisewander, an Arizona State University School of Life Sciences professor, has the same concern. Thus, when the National Institute of Health began funding programs focused on increasing diversity in STEM fields, she proposed such a program in the neurosciences at ASU called Workforce Inclusion in Neuroscience through Undergraduate Research Experience (WINURE).

Her idea was to create a place at the school where undergraduate students could find mentors and get into a research lab. That way, they might be inspired to go to graduate school.

“The interest may be there, but they may not see themselves as scientists,” Neisewander said. “They may start out seeing themselves as pre-med students, but if they start working in labs, they will sometimes find they really enjoy that experience.”

Support to do neuroscience research

WINURE defines “underrepresented” as ethnic minorities and first-generation college students. To increase participation in these groups, students are paid for doing research, up to 20 hours per week during the school year and 40 hours in the summer. They’re also given research and travel funds to attend national conferences.

The program offers a weekly seminar where students learn about topics to help them get into a graduate program, such as how to write an abstract, how to present their research and how to apply to graduate school. And, guest speakers talk about their career paths because, as program director Greg Powell pointed out, students may need to “see it to be it.”

“Perhaps they haven’t had exposure to a scientist they can relate to culturally. One of the nice things about the program is that we can find speakers who are good examples,” said Powell, a postdoctoral researcher with the school. “That may stimulate them to pursue neuroscience.”

Neisewander hopes students discover that a career in research can be as rewarding as a career in medicine.

“A lot of students, if they are interested in the sciences, are interested in medicine because they see that connection to helping others more easily,” Neisewander said. “We’re trying to get across to our students that research really does move the field along and feeds back into biomedical solutions to health problems, so they can see the connection there. You can make a big difference and give back to your community through research.”

Workforce Inclusion in Neuroscience through Undergraduate Research Experience

ASU School of Life Sciences undergraduate Margaret Zheng samples tissues in Janet Neisewander's lab. WINURE provides funding for students to work 20 hours per week in a mentor's lab, learning skills that they will need to advance to graduate school. Photo by: Samantha Lloyd/ASU VisLab

Paired with neuroscience mentors

When students begin the WINURE program, Neisewander and Powell provide them with a list of ASU mentors that includes faculty studying neuroscience in the life sciences, psychology and speech and hearing. Mentors are also available at other institutions, such as Barrow Neurological Institute and University of Arizona College of Medicine-Phoenix.

With that mentor, students can assist with lab research and even start an individual project.

“Once they start the program, the intention is to fund them through graduation,” Neisewander said. “Mainly, we want to keep them interested in neuroscience. Then we work with them.”

Students who don’t find a good fit on the first try can even switch mentors if they like, as senior Alyssa Macomber, a double major in neuroscience and psychology, did when she joined the program. She was looking for a mentor who would provide her with experience in bench work techniques that she would need in graduate school and found that in School of Life Sciences professor Salvatore Oddo.

Macomber benefitted so much from learning lab techniques in Oddo’s lab and from advice received in the seminar that she participated in a national diversity conference and applied to several graduate schools, including ASU.

In fact, she wishes she had access to the program sooner.

“Especially if you are planning to go to graduate school, this is the program that will help,” Macomber said. “When I was a freshman, I didn’t know I wanted to graduate school, but going through the program, it’s less scary. They teach you a lot of stuff that is unknown and that you really can’t learn until you go to college.”

WINURE has five open slots for the fall 2019 semester, and all underrepresented groups interested in pursuing neuroscience research in graduate school are encouraged to apply. Applications are due on April 24 and Sept. 20.

Melinda Weaver

Communications specialist, School of Life Sciences


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ASU marks Greek Leadership Village grand opening

February 26, 2019

ASU President Michael Crow commends the student-led project that will foster leadership in fraternity, sorority members

More than 250 guests — including Gov. Doug Ducey, Tempe Mayor Mark Mitchell and Arizona State University President Michael M. Crow — celebrated the official grand opening of the Greek Leadership Village on Tuesday evening.

"I am here today not as the governor but as a very proud Sun Devil," said Ducey, an alumnus who was a member of Pi Kappa Alpha during his time at ASU.

He reminisced about his time at ASU, not knowing a single person, living in Manzanita Hall and rushing, adding that if students are not living in the (Greek) house, to move in. This advice comes from his experience living with his Greek brothers for four years while at ASU.

"I want to encourage you to get involved in your fraternity and sorority," Ducey said. "The skills that I learned as pledge trainer, rush chairman, treasurer, then president of my fraternity — these are skills that I not only applied in my career at Procter & Gamble and that built Coldstone Creamery, these are the skills I use every day as governor to convene leaders inside the community, bring them together, set a vision, chart a course, pick the right people and build consensus. All that is available to you in the Greek system, in addition to the relationships that you can build."

The Greek Leadership Village represents a new vision for fraternity and sorority life, a community where all fraternal organizations can gather, work, learn and live. The community, at Rural and Terrace roads on the east side of the Tempe campus, welcomed its first residents in August. It includes 27 Greek chapters in three- or four-story townhouses, each ranging from 19 to 41 beds for sophomores, juniors and seniors — some 950 fraternity and sorority members in total. It's the first community of its kind at ASU and among the first in the country.

In a climate where Greek life is being closed down at universities across the nation, President Crow thanked ASU students, student leaders and all who were involved in the project over the last few years for their perseverance in maintaining Greek life on campus. Rather than retreating from the tradition of sororities and fraternities, which have produced many state and national leaders across all sectors, he commended the students for finding a resolution, generating ideas of what a new Greek life could look like and bringing it to fruition.

"Through hard work, through creativity by our students, a university team working with our students, through perseverance, through trust between the students and the university, we were able to work our way through some thorny patches and come out on the other side with this project," he said.

The centerpiece of the village is a 33,000-square-foot community center with office and activity space for every chapter at ASU, not just those with housing there. The community center, which includes retail space and a ballroom, also houses all five governing councils of Greek life, according to Gary Ballinger, director of fraternity and sorority life at ASU.

At ASU, about 5,000 students are active members of 77 sororities and fraternities — about 9 percent of the undergraduate population. In the 2017-18 academic year, the sorority and fraternity community performed more than 53,245 hours of community service and raised nearly $500,000 for charity. 

Ducey said that one thing he thought was great about Greek life was the healthy competition — not only on an academic level but a philanthropic one, which he encouraged students to focus on.

The 12 sororities and 15 fraternities housed in the Greek Leadership Village were selected after an application process that required financial information, conduct history, a roster of residents, a letter of support from the national organization and a pitch on how the chapter could contribute to the community, Ballinger said.

Each townhouse includes a kitchen, meeting space, a president’s suite and a patio on the ground floor, with bedrooms, communal bathrooms and a balcony on the upper floors. The gated complex is built around two grassy courtyards with picnic tables, grills and lounge seating. There is no pool.

The Greek Leadership Village is the culmination of a student-led process that began in 2012, when Greek organizations began proposing the idea of a communal living space. A student committee began looking at Greek housing communities at other universities. In 2016, the chapters involved their national organizations and alumni, and the Arizona Board of Regents approved the building plan. The application process began in 2017. ASU built the 300,000-square-foot, $70 million project in conjunction with American Campus Communities, which is managing the 6-acre complex.

"These houses, these chapters, these organizations where students can learn together, live together and think about being leaders together…" Crow said. "Leadership is a very difficult thing. It requires you to understand people, to have empathy for other people, to understand other people's circumstances, to learn how to solve problems, to learn how to live together, to learn how to move through things together. This project is representative of a massive forward step for Arizona State University in student governance, in student design, in student leadership and in the new emergence of new student leaders."

Herminia Rincon and Mary Beth Faller contributed to this report. 

Top photo: (From left) Wayne Unger, Tempe Mayor Mark Mitchell, ASU President Michael Crow, Regent Karrin Taylor Robson, Gov. Doug Ducey, ACC CEO Bill Bayless and Corinne Roels cut the ceremonial ribbon at the Greek Leadership Village grand opening on the Tempe campus on Feb. 26. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now