ASU humanities institute staff develop Student Stories Project

December 10, 2020

As the year 2020 comes to a close, the COVID-19 pandemic continues to impact student learning and life, and many students are finding it increasingly difficult to press forward in the “new normal.”

To help students feel a sense of community and support in a safe, virtual space, staff at Arizona State University's Institute for Humanities Research have developed the Student Stories Project Notebook on top of packing envelopes with doodles in the background The first batch of Student Stories Project notebooks shipped this week. Photo and graphic courtesy Lauren Whitby. Download Full Image

“The ‘new normal’ has changed the university experience for students,” said Barbara Dente, Institute for Humanities Research business operations specialist. 

“This project is meant to help students take pen to paper, in a traditional sense, and explore their thoughts on topics that are affecting them as students and individuals in today’s world. They then have a global platform to share their thoughts and ideas with their fellow ASU students.” 

Here’s how the project works:

• Starting Dec. 15, the Institute for Humanities Research will provide daily prompts on the project webpage to inspire students to write, draw or create notebook entries with any medium they choose. 

• Students who want to participate can register online to receive a free project notebook to record their responses.

• Students are not obligated to follow every prompt and can participate at any level they choose. If they post a picture of their entry with the hashtag #StudentStoriesASU on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram, they will be entered to win giveaways that will be distributed by the Institute for Humanities Research. 

“One thing that is really challenging for students right now is that they can’t interact with friends and classmates like they used to,” said Lauren Whitby, marketing and communications specialist senior at the Institute for Humanities Research.

“We’re hoping that the project hashtag will help students stay in touch and be inspired by fellow students’ writing and drawings.”

Prompts will run through Feb. 15. Free project notebooks are limited, but anyone can participate by following the prompts on the project webpage and posting pictures of their entries.

Though the Institute for Humanities Research traditionally has worked primarily with faculty and graduate students, the institute felt a responsibility to support all students during the trying months ahead.

“This is an opportunity for the IHR to show up for students every day over the winter break and into the new year, to listen to their stories, and to learn from their experiences,” said Celina Osuna, Institute for Humanities Research coordinator and Desert Humanities assistant director.

Lauren Whitby

Digital Marketing Manager, The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences


More than a 'little brain'

ASU professor works to understand how the cerebellum contributes to behavior, development

December 10, 2020

The cerebellum ranks among the least understood brain structures and for decades was thought to contribute to movement and coordination. But this tiny structure — appropriately nicknamed “the little brain” because it looks like a miniature of the cortex — actually houses about 50% more neurons than the rest of the brain and likely contributes to myriad behaviors. 

Neuroscientists are just beginning to challenge the simplistic idea that the cerebellum is only important for coordinated movement. Connections exist between the cerebellum and brain areas involved in higher order cognitive functions like memory, decision-making and goal pursuit. Injury to the cerebellum can lead to deficits in higher order cognition, and in kids, cerebellar injury is associated with a higher risk of autism.  woman's portrait Assistant Professor of psychology Jessica Verpeut. Download Full Image

Jessica Verpeut, who will start as an assistant professor of psychology at Arizona State University in January 2021, is one of the neuroscientists working to understand the roles of the cerebellum. She studies brain circuits and mechanisms that contribute to behavior, and wants to know what the cerebellum is doing and why it is so important, especially early in life.

“Usually when studying a neurodevelopmental disorder or a specific behavior, the focus is on a single brain region but often many brain regions or entire circuits contribute to a behavior or are impacted by a disorder. My research looks at whole brain mechanisms, which lets me ask how a brain region like the cerebellum influences other regions to give rise to a behavior or deficit,” Verpeut said.

To study a brain circuit in its entirety, Verpeut uses molecular biology techniques to stain areas of neuronal activity while making the other tissue transparent. In this way, she can visualize the entire brain and map entire neural circuits that were active. 

In this 3D image of a brain, light areas identify regions stained with c-Fos, which is a protein that marks neural activity. Image courtesy of Jessica Verpeut.

“Putting our tracer into the cerebellum we can find regions of the neocortex that are active. This type of circuit analysis lets us develop a sense of how the cerebellum sends signals to the rest of the brain,” Verpeut added.

Verpeut also uses machine learning to measure how the cerebellum contributes to brain circuits that are involved in natural behaviors like socializing with others. In these types of experiments, the animal does whatever they want while being filmed. An unsupervised machine learning algorithm identifies movement patterns of the animal and classifies those patterns into distinct behaviors. Verpeut can then use the tracer and imaging techniques to map out brain networks associated with the identified behaviors.

“This technique will let us understand behavior in a whole new way. We do not understand yet how the cerebellum contributes to social behavior, and this method of categorizing behaviors will let us look at group dynamics,” Verpeut said.

Science writer, Psychology Department