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The diversity of neuroscience

Neuroscience lecturers discuss the wide range of possibilities in the field

Portrait of ASU lecturers Shannon Eaton and Rachel Bristol.

ASU lecturers Rachel Bristol and Shannon Eaton.

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.”

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!”

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