The diversity of neuroscience

Neuroscience lecturers discuss the wide range of possibilities in the field

May 23, 2022

Lecturers Rachel Bristol and Shannon Eaton came from very different backgrounds but are two of the most sought-after faculty in the neuroscience bachelor’s degree program at Arizona State University.

They teach courses both online and on-campus, with content ranging from “Your Brain on Drugs” to “The Neuroscience of Memory and Learning” to “Introduction to Neuroscience.”
Portrait of ASU lecturers Shannon Eaton and Rachel Bristol. ASU lecturers Rachel Bristol and Shannon Eaton. Download Full Image

The neuroscience program has doubled in size since becoming a stand-alone degree option both on-campus and online in the fall of 2021. ASU’s neuroscience degree examines the functions of the brain and nervous system in relation to behavior, emotion and consciousness. 

Bristol came to ASU after earning a doctorate in cognitive science from the University of California, San Diego. She previously received her Bachelor of Arts in English at the University of Oregon, and followed with a master’s degree in linguistics from the University of Delaware before discovering that her passion resided in neuroscience. She is interested in difficult questions like, “What is cognition?,” “What is the nature of thought, and how does the brain support consciousness?” and “Are our brains specialized for social interaction?” She is fascinated by language and the way it interlaces with our brains, our minds and our societies. 

This fall, Bristol will be teaching the courses Introduction to Neuroscience and Fundamentals of Cognitive Neuroscience, and is excited to help undergraduate students explore the field of neuroscience. 

“I kind of slipped into neuroscience accidentally, but I think that should be an inspiration to students because it shows how accessible the field is,” Bristol said. “For instance, even the skills someone gains from studying art history can cross-apply in some way to studying the brain and how we perceive art. Personally, my passion for language tied in perfectly with cognitive science and neuroscience, and I think it is open to anyone who is curious.”

Eaton and Bristol both emphasized how broad neuroscience can be, with the combination of skills from philosophy, psychology, linguistics, engineering, artificial intelligence, biology and education, all mixed together. 

While Bristol explores more of the theoretical concepts behind neuroscience, Eaton has a background in molecular biology and focuses more on the structure and function of the brain. She received her doctoral degree from the University of Kentucky and specialized in psychopharmacology, or the study of the use of medications in treating mental disorders. She researched sex differences in pharmacokinetics and reward behaviors in the brain. 

“A big focus for me is curiosity and inspiring curiosity. I love seeing what students get excited about. Typically in my ‘Your Brain on Drugs’ class, students are really excited to see research on hallucinogens and marijuana. However, I’m also hoping that students get excited about the larger picture surrounding drug abuse,” Eaton said. “Curiosity is what drives learning, and learning is what drives future research.”

While Eaton’s background is more on the cellular end, she would call herself a behavioral neuroscientist. She is personally interested in the molecular implications that can affect behavior. For example, research conducted by Assistant Professor Jessica Verpeut recently uncovered additional connections between the role of the cerebellum and behavior.

Her passion in neuroscience is understanding sex differences and the role of sex hormones in the brain. 

“With my background in psychopharmacology, I have always been interested in how prescription drugs and therapeutics impact men and women differently. For example, eight out of 10 prescription drugs that are removed from the shelves are because they have worse side effects in women than in men. Fifty percent of the population is women, and yet they are historically not researched because of cycling hormones and social dynamics,” said Eaton. 

This fall, Eaton will be teaching the course Neuroscience of Learning and Motivation. 

“First, we examine the neuronal mechanisms and processes behind the simplest forms of learning and classical and operant conditioning. Then, we get into language acquisition and epigenetics of learning/cognitive ability. Throughout the course, we examine questions like 'What is learning?,' 'Do you need a brain to learn?,' 'Can animals learn the same things as humans?,' 'What is motivation?' and 'What are the brain regions and neurotransmitters involved in learning and motivation?'" Eaton sasid.

"These topics are explored with hands-on activities and student-led article presentations. As a result, students have a lot of influence over what gets discussed and each semester is a little different,” Eaton said.

Bristol and Eaton also shared that neuroscience falls into multiple categories, much like musical genres. 

“When you think of it in this lens, there’s rap, but then there is rhythm and blues, and hip-hop, or then there are like 18 different types of rock and roll. The same holds true for neuroscience – such as cool fields like neurogastronomy or psychopharmacology,” Bristol said. “As long as you are interested in the brain, there is a place for you in neuroscience!”

Robert Ewing

Marketing and Communications Manager, Department of Psychology


Overcoming the silo mentality with a multifaceted education

ASU grad blends STEM, classical liberal education and the arts to better serve underrepresented communities

May 23, 2022

Most individuals are interested in one area of study, try to master one skill, and – if they are lucky – strive to succeed in one career track. That is not the case with Ariana Afshari, an outstanding neurobiology researcher, a talented artist and a thoughtful thinker interested in philosophy, morality and ethics.

The spring 2022 Dean’s Medalist for the School of Life Sciences earned a biological sciences major and a minor in civic and economic thought and leadership from the School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership — and interweaving science and the humanities was a planned decision. Portrait of ASU grad Ariana Afshari. Ariana Afshari is dedicated to breaking down barriers separating the scientific community, the humanities and the arts. Download Full Image

“I knew I would have an emphasis in STEM, and I looked for a complementary component that would make me a holistic learner in the future,” Afshari said. 

Afshari is a rare student.

“She is deeply interested in the natural sciences, but she is also interested in politics, the arts and the humanities,” said Professor of Practice Peter McNamara. “It was this latter group of interests that brought her to SCETLSchool of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership.”

This summer, Afshari begins an impressive mission: to simultaneously do research in developmental neuroscience at Stanford Medical School and teach biology in the Bay Area through Teach for America at a school serving an underrepresented community, where 98% of students are Hispanic. After that, she will apply to medical school.

“My goal is to serve communities that look like me, that come from a background like me,” she said. 

“I grew up in a low-income Hispanic household. There is a lot that you can learn from serving those communities, but certain topics are difficult to teach. One thing is to learn about it; the other thing is to live it. And I believe that there are indescribable factors that equip me to serve these communities I come from. Hopefully, I can be in a community that resonates with my background growing up.”

Bridging science and humanities 

Afshari's plans to earn a multidisciplinary college education began in the spring of her first year at ASU, when she applied for the course Shakespeare's Leadership Lessons. The course, which is taught in Prescott, Arizona, solidified her interest in the School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership as a complementary part of her career. 

“I was wary about a full immersion into Shakespeare, of reading the texts from beginning to end, acting them out, and not only to get the meaning of what the characters are saying but also grappling with what they are saying. But I walked in, and everyone was in the same boat and wanting to learn. We all walked away with something really valuable,” she said.

“I loved the experience. Learning in the pines, where you are vulnerable, where you get a raw experience of learning, is a lot different from learning in a traditional setting."

Ariana with her cohort of friends and professors during the Shakespeare's Leadership Lessons

Ariana Afshari (bottom row, third from right) in Prescott, Arizona, with the cohort of students in the course Shakespeare's Leadership Lessons.

Afshari then joined the cohort of students who traveled to New Delhi for the Global Intensive Experience: SCETL Leadership and Service in India, where they studied and discussed the history, culture and politics of India, and reflected on global leadership and citizenship.

But when the pandemic hit, it became evident that the scientific community and parts of the American civil society (and other societies around the world) were at odds, particularly on matters related to public health policies versus individual liberties. 

You can teach someone to be a good doctor, but you can’t teach a doctor to have empathy. The education offered at SCETL teaches you what other disciplines can’t teach you: how to be human aligned with your values.

– Ariana Afshari

As the global crisis unfolded, Afshari noticed an urgent need for cross-disciplinary conversations between health professionals, policymakers, professionals working tirelessly on the frontlines, professors, etc. 

Ariana Afshari in the center with professor Susan Carrese in India

Ariana Afshari (center) with Clinical Assistant Professor Susan Carrese in New Delhi during the GIE course SCETL Leadership and Service in India.

“I realized that we must develop interdisciplinary understanding and support about how each of these disciplines interacts with one another. That’s when it came to light what I was looking for at SCETL. I was trying to find something at the cusp of philosophy that I could bring to science,” she said.

This pivoting starts with each individual, she said.

“I see the interaction between disciplines as not even complementary, but necessary. It makes you better all around. It’s great to be specialized, but it’s even more important to be aware and prudent about how your discipline affects others.”

Afshari's School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership courses allowed her to exercise an important habit: questioning. The Socratic method utilized by School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership professors encourages students to participate in discussions and question what they are taught, which is something Afshari believes enables students to be more successful in their fields.

“I’m better in my STEM classes because of SCETL, but I’m also better in my SCETL classes because of my STEM major,” she said, adding that she had not “seen an education like this before. (In STEM classes), you’re never going to go to any of your classes and ask what this means. No one is going to ask why. In SCETL, that is the purpose."

SCETL allowed me to fulfill the mission that I was looking for and that I wasn’t getting at a single track at ASU,” she said. “In the broader discourse of the nation, you see everyone trying to prove they are right and prove authority. At SCETL, instead, the faculty brings (the discussion) back to questions of ‘What is authority?’ ‘Where do individual liberties come from?’ ‘Who actually has a say in policymaking, and whose authority matters?’ The pandemic brought to life issues that SCETL can contribute to, and the school created several conversations about science and its role.”

Ariana Afshari with her group of friends and professors in India

Ariana Afshari (bottom row, second from right) in New Delhi with her cohort of ASU students and professors for the Leadership and Service in India course.

The school’s emphasis on civil discourse, political thought and civic education was complementary to Afshari's dedication to serving her community.

“SCETL equipped me to be open-minded to discourse and to face future challenges when talking about important science topics. I can contribute to those conversations in a more fruitful way than many people would without this perspective,” she said.

“Getting an education in STEM has been extremely valuable because I want to build a career in science; it’s what I love to learn. But, at times, it can be really transactional. There isn’t a lot of human connection and conversation,” she said. “SCETL has an effective, evidence-based approach to teaching humanities in classrooms with fewer than 30 students, and professors who are your mentors, who are dedicated to guiding you, and topics such as morality, ethics, etc. SCETL teaches you humanities. You can teach someone to be a good doctor, but you can’t teach a doctor to have empathy. The education offered at SCETL teaches you what other disciplines can’t teach you: how to be human aligned with your values.”

SCETL allowed me to fulfill the mission that I was looking for and that I wasn’t getting at a single track at ASU.
– Ariana Afshari

In this process, Afshari was grateful for the strong relationships she developed with her mentors at the School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership.

“I’ve had classes at STEM where the syllabi say, ‘Do not ask me for recommendation letters.’ It’s disheartening as a student because the integrity you show in class is great, but you don’t get to develop a relationship," she said. "On the other hand, at SCETL, every professor makes it clear to you that they are there to support you, to love you, to see you do your best, and I’ve had the honor of meeting so many wonderful professors at SCETL. I credit a lot of my success to them.”

Her scientific skills were in fact an addition to SCETL’s learning environment.

“Ariana’s ability to think deeply about both the scientific process and the elements of politics, religious faith and institutions, and social forces revealed to all of us her exceptional talent and rare combination of intellectual and aesthetic gifts,” said Assistant Professor Karen Taliaferro. “She is thoughtful, creative, responsible, articulate and curious, able to read widely and deeply and write beautifully.” 

Painting encapsulates cross-sectionality between leading disciplines 

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Afshari threw herself into a new challenge. She painted a 60-by-40-inch mural for the School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership inspired by Raphael’s “The School of Athens.” Ariana's painting displays icons of several disciplines, including Plato, Aristotle, Abraham Lincoln, Mahatma Gandhi, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Cesar Chavez, Frederick Douglas and Frida Kahlo.

The painting is on display at the school's library common room, on the sixth floor of Coor Hall on ASU's Tempe campus. The room is open to the public from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday.

Marcia Paterman Brookey

Manager of marketing and communications, School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership