Workshop introduces high school students to Alzheimer's research

ASU Department of Psychology, Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center host Behavioral Neuroscience Workshop

September 13, 2022

You don’t know what you don’t know. This simple fact is a big reason the potential of many bright minds remains untapped. When it comes to the field of neuroscience, Heather Bimonte-Nelson is determined to change that.

“One of the major challenges with building a more diverse pipeline of passionate researchers is giving potential future scholars access early on in their academic careers so that they can experience the excitement of performing research in psychology and neuroscience,” said Bimonte-Nelson, Arizona State University President’s Professor of psychology and co-director of the Research Education Component of the Arizona Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center (AZ ADRC). High school seniors wearing surgical coverings, face masks and gloves look on as one of them handles a human brain. High school seniors from Desert Vista High School and Horizon Honors Secondary School recently participated in the 2022 Arizona Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center Junior Fellow workshop hosted by the Arizona State University Department of Psychology on Sept. 5. Download Full Image

In December 2021, the AZ ADRC received a $15.7 million NIH grant, which included support for the development of a pathway for students from diverse backgrounds to learn about Alzheimer’s disease research and care.

Bimonte-Nelson is also on the national ADRC Research Education Component's Supporting Diversity Leadership Workgroup, where the scientists collaboratively discuss ideas to provide training opportunities for the next generation of researchers, with a focus on diversity and inclusion. Bimonte-Nelson collaborates with Eric Reiman, MD, executive director of the Banner Alzheimer’s Institute and director of the AZ ADRC, and Roberta Brinton from the University of Arizona, co-director with Bimonte-Nelson of the Research Education Component of the grant, to provide training opportunities for such students.

One of those opportunities took place this month when the ASU Department of Psychology hosted a group of five high school seniors from Desert Vista High School and Horizon Honors Secondary School for the 2022 Arizona Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center Junior Fellows workshop on Sept. 5.

The students — Sarah Juvera, Dani Khatib, Rheana Andaya, Rohan Bulusu and Celeste Burkholder — had not previously participated in a research lab but were nominated by teachers to become designated as Junior Fellows. Prior to arriving at the workshop, they were given medical journal papers and a few chapters of reading in order to prepare for the hands-on training and the upcoming ADRC conference.

“I wanted to hold a workshop where selected students could come to ASU and spend the day in my lab looking into high-powered microscopes to see brain tissues, dissect a brain and learn about memory processing and neurodegenerative disease, as well as normal aging,” Bimonte-Nelson said.

Bimonte-Nelson conducts research on how hormones like estrogen or progesterone affect the brain and if their presence or absence changes brain structure across the lifespan. She wants to know what role hormones play in the differences between male and female brains, including conducting groundbreaking research on hysterectomies and their potential impact on memory with aging.

READ MORE: A brain road trip: Exploring the neural map

As part the workshop, she gave the students a tour of her Behavioral Neuroscience of Memory and Aging Lab and introduced them to other scientists at ASU doing psychology and neuroscience research.

One of those scientists was doctoral student Tristan Lyle, who works in the SOCIAL (Study of Circuits in the Adolescent Life) Neurobiology Lab with Assistant Professor Jessica Verpeut. Lyle shared about neural manipulation techniques and machine learning, and showed the high school students glowing fluorescent neurons from mouse brains under a microscope.

Veronica Pena, a senior PhD student in the Bimonte-Nelson laboratory, gave the high school students a presentation on Alzheimer’s disease, including behavior symptoms and pathology changes that occur in the brain, and went in-depth about aging in the brain as well.

The experience was memorable and inspirational for the high school scholars.

“As someone who is still exploring my interests in the medical field, the ADRC workshop really gave me a chance to peer into the neuroscience world and discover what it feels like to work in a lab,” Andaya said. “Not only was I captivated by the passionate neuroscientists I met, but I was also given multiple hands-on experiences I would have only done years into college if it were not for the workshop.”

“Each activity was unique and gave me more interest in understanding science and the complexities of the brain," said Burkholder, who plans on attending the Edson College of Nursing and Health Innovation at ASU next fall. "I now know much more about memory, experimental protocol and neurodegenerative disease complexities. Learning about memory processing and consolidation was fascinating, as these are vital functions that make us who we are." 

Following the workshop, the students were paired with graduate student mentors from the Bimonte-Nelson lab and will attend the Arizona Alzheimer’s Consortium 2022 Annual Scientific Conference on Sept. 22.

“I am so proud of our inaugural AZ ADRC Junior Fellows," Bimonte-Nelson said. "They have already shown that they are extraordinary thinkers with a passion to learn science, to lead and to contribute to society in positive ways. Spending nearly 10 hours with this group over the last two weeks, between our meetings and the in-person workshop, reminded me how bright our future is due to this next generation of scholars.

"I can’t wait to see what they accomplish, and I will be here every step of the way to provide whatever mentorship and support I can."

Robert Ewing

Marketing and Communications Manager, Department of Psychology


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ASU town hall addresses how to best serve Hispanic students, community

ASU looks to improve connections for Hispanic students, community.
September 13, 2022

Official Hispanic-Serving Institution designation means at least 25% of undergraduates are Hispanic

Arizona State University has already done a lot of work to attract and support Hispanic students — as evidenced by its designation this year as a Hispanic-Serving Institution — but more needs to be done for this population and the community, according to participants at a town hall on Monday night.

In June, the U.S. Department of Education named ASU as a Hispanic-Serving Institution (HSI), which means that the university has an enrollment of Hispanic undergraduate students that is at least 25% of the overall student body. In 2021, ASU’s Hispanic students made up 26% of the on-campus undergraduate population, up from about 19% in fall 2011.

Lisa Magaña, professor in the School of Transborder Studies and associate dean of diversity, equity and inclusion for the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, said that the designation is a milestone.

“Typically, HSIs are very small and the fact that the Tempe campus has reached that as a Research 1 university has important implications for all campuses, for research, getting funding and thinking of big, broad ideas,” said Magaña, who also is a Provost Fellow for Hispanic-Serving Initiatives.

“This will definitely have an impact on the community.”

She spoke at a town hall event Monday at the Polytechnic campus in recognition of Hispanic-Serving Institution Week.

The HSI designation not only reflects the number of Hispanic students, but also ASU’s financial and academic support programs, K–12 outreach programs and resources for the broader community.

Jorge Juárez, the new executive director of the Sun Devil Fitness Center, grew up the youngest of seven children from a single mother and became a first-generation college student with the help of a guidance counselor. He said the designation means that students like he was are not alone.

“From a math standpoint, this means that one out of every four people will look like me and know my culture and know my story,” he said at the town hall.

“Thirty-five years ago, I wish there were resources for people like me.”

Juárez said that he supports Hispanic students through hiring.

“I hire students and try to mentor them and put them in cohorts where they can make connections.”

The HSI designation means ASU embraces Hispanic students not only in quantity, but with quality too, according to Clinical Assistant Professor Kevin Correa, who is president of the Chicano/Latino Faculty and Staff Association at ASU and program co-coordinator for higher and postsecondary education in Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College.

“The quantity can be celebrated but I think about the quality of experience that students are having,” said Correa, the former director of the ASU Student Success Center.

“I think about Hispanic students and do they have the opportunity to learn more about their culture? Look at retention rates — how many are retained from the first to the second years?

“At ASU our goals as an institution are to get over 90% retention from first to second years and over 85% graduation rates,” he said.

“We’re making great strides but we have a way to go.”

Cecilia Alcántar-Chávez, president of the Undergraduate Student Government (USG) Polytechnic, is a first-generation Hispanic student. She grew up on a raisin farm in central California.

“For me, an HSI is one in which students are supported and feel welcome and can thrive,” said Alcántar-Chávez, who is majoring in mechanical engineering systems with a minor in project management.

“As a first-generation student, I knew I wanted to come to college but I didn’t know how to go about it; but ASU made it easy. They supported me every step of the way.”

Nico Arango, vice president of policy for Undergraduate Student Government Polytechnic, is majoring in mechanical engineering systems thanks to a New American University Scholarship.

“I’m here because this university supports Hispanic students,” he said.

“I believe that HSI means not only being inclusive to Hispanic students but also pushing them. I didn’t seek out USG, I was pushed to do it because someone saw my potential.”

The town hall participants discussed community outreach by ASU as well.

Rafael Martínez, an assistant professor of Southwest Borderlands in the College of Integrative Sciences and Arts, said that when he arrived at the Polytechnic campus in fall 2020, the pandemic thwarted his goal of connecting with the greater East Valley community.

But he was able to do archival research and discovered that traditional Hispanic neighborhoods in Mesa and Chandler were often cut off from main town resources such as running water, electricity and street lights.

“This is an opportunity for us to learn from the stories of the past and leverage our institutional powers to serve the community,” he said.

He said that traditional historic conservation prizes concepts like architecture.

“But for people of color, the experiences and memories and stories are more important,” he said. “We must first listen, preserving community stories and creating meaningful experiences.”

The speakers described several initiatives that support the pipeline to ASU and the community, such as the College Assistance Migrant Program and the Hispanic Mother-Daughter Program.

Magaña said that during the pandemic, ASU worked with the city of Phoenix to have a famous cartoonist get the word out about vaccines in the Latino community.

“It was a great example of the city, the community and the university working together,” she said.

The town hall speakers discussed ways that ASU can continue to connect with the larger community.

Magaña said that one idea is tapping the business community, including the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, to help food vendors who may be intimidated by the process of working with ASU.

Other ideas were:

• Have more Spanish speakers on campus.

• Make sure important web pages are available in Spanish.

• Focus on recruiting not only students, but their entire families.

• Engage Spanish-language media, particularly radio.

• Continue to provide support and advocacy for undocumented students.

• Provide guest speakers, classes and certificate programs to the community in Spanish.

• Hold voter education and registration drives.

Irasema Coronado, professor and director of the School of Transborder Studies, wants to see more rural outreach.

“There are high schools in this state that are never visited by an ASU recruiter,” she said.

“If we don’t go to them, how do we bring them to ASU? We need to take our show on the road.”

Coronado told the event crowd about a recent graduation ceremony, when she was in her office and a Hispanic family came by.

“It was the mom, the stepdad, the brother, the neighbor, 12 people, all of them in wonderful ASU T-shirts,” she said.

The mother spoke to Coronado in Spanish: “'I’m here to thank you. Four years ago I left my son with you and now he’s graduating.’

“I said, ‘Thank you for allowing us to be part of this dream.’”

Top image: Moderators Vanessa Fonseca-Chavez, associate dean of diversity, equity and inclusion for the College of Integrative Sciences and Arts, and Martine Garcia, TRIO program director, address the panelists during the Hispanic-Serving Institution Town Hall at the Polytechnic campus on Sept. 12. Photo by Deanna Dent/Arizona State University

Mary Beth Faller

Reporter , ASU News