Sahil Chawla's first experience with Alzheimer’s disease came as a high school volunteer at a care facility for Alzheimer’s patients. He remembers being shocked at how the patients seemingly lost their identities right before his eyes due to the dementia brought on by the progressive disease. Those volunteer shifts inspired the University of Virginia student to continue researching the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease as a neuroscience major.
Working in the lab of Alev Erisir, chair of the psychology department, Chawla examines what happens in the brains of mice that model Alzheimer’s disease during its early stages, when classical pathological signs are not obvious. He has presented two posters at local and national neuroscience meetings, receiving a “Best Student Presentation” award at one, and he will be co-author on a manuscript that includes his work. This academic year, the University awarded the fourth year from Chantilly, Virginia, a prestigious Harrison Undergraduate Research Award to continue his faculty-mentored project with up to $3,000 to cover expenses.
Based in the College, the undergraduate neuroscience program is dedicated to helping Chawla and other promising Arts & Sciences students flourish as dogged and gifted researchers. The flourishing of the program comes at a time when UVA continues to expand its emphasis on brain research across Grounds, recognizing its importance at the center of many pressing topics of public health, wellness, health care, and quality-of-life issues.
“I have learned so much about the subject — not only the behavioral and cognitive deficits that people with Alzheimer’s face, but from a biological perspective, I have gained an appreciation for the complexities of the disease from it being an inheritable disease to a disease that can be a result of concussions and head trauma in sports,” says Chawla, who plans to take a gap year after graduating in May before applying to medical school, specializing in neurology. “This research has certainly opened my eyes to applying to more research positions during my gap year and contemplating a possible Ph.D. program. While sometimes frustrating, I think that if you are really passionate about the subject you research, the feeling of an experiment running correctly or making a new finding certainly makes up for it.”
A TWO-WAY STREET
According to surveys by UVA, fewer than 20 universities nationwide offer a stand-alone undergraduate degree in neuroscience or neurobiology, including schools such as UCLA, the University of California, Berkeley, Harvard, MIT, and Duke.
Neuroscience crosses disciplines, and the UVA program offers its courses through the departments of psychology and biology, with research labs functioning through those departments as well as the School of Medicine. This academic year, there are 47 third- and fourth-year A&S students enrolled in UVA’s neuroscience program, which requires prospective majors to submit applications.
Biology Professor George Bloom, who serves as director of the program, says the College is exploring the possibility of expanding the program based on the expectation that there are more qualified students who would apply for the major if there were more seats available.
More than 70 UVA faculty members from across various departments and schools have been approved to serve as mentors for neuroscience majors, who are required to complete at least one year of research in a University-sponsored lab.
“These students are doing real science, and it’s a two-way street,” says Bloom, who oversees a University laboratory dedicated to Alzheimer’s disease research. “We’re providing them with the opportunity to learn how to do real science, and in the course of doing so, they often help us out by making deposits in the data bank.
“We are constantly trying to come up with projects that are conducive to an undergrad’s schedule and can be beneficial to the undergrads in the sense that they’re going to have a great learning opportunity and that is beneficial to us in the sense that once they get going, they can actually collect data for the lab and get their names on research papers.”
While the brain health of the aging population remains a major issue, ongoing neuroscience research explores a broader range of issues that were seemingly out of reach a decade ago. Neuroscience labs explore the challenges posed by autism, Parkinson’s disease, attention deficit disorder, and multiple sclerosis, in addition to Alzheimer’s disease. And the importance of neuroscience extends beyond health concerns, explains Associate Professor of Biology Sarah Kucenas, who runs a neuroscience research lab on Grounds.
“What makes it unique here at UVA is that we have such a huge concentration of neuroscience labs here, and they span the whole gamut,” says Kucenas, who recently was awarded a $100,000 grant by the UVA Brain Institute advisory group for a pilot proposal in collaboration with the UVA School of Medicine’s Christopher Overall and Alban Gaultier. “We have psychology labs operating cognitive experimental research, basic science labs like the ones here in biology where students who are interested in neuroscience at a basic scientific level can get involved, as well as translational labs operated in the medical school.
“Whatever topic students want to research, UVA is sure to have someone here who’s got a lab working in that area. And when they get in the lab, these students are doing the actual work. We don’t have them washing dishes. This isn’t work-study, or just following a graduate student around. They are actually learning what we’re learning in real time, which means we don’t have the answers to the questions ahead of time. They’re helping us discover. They’re at the edge of the field with us.”
Bloom and other UVA faculty also offer research lab positions to undergraduates completing degrees in related majors. Angela Pham, a third-year biology major from Herndon, Virginia, spends an average of six to seven hours a week in Bloom’s laboratory, collecting and recording data from brain tissue sections of Alzheimer’s patients.
“Being in the lab helps me integrate all of the information I’m learning in class because I’m actually doing the things in Professor Bloom’s lab that other students just talk about in class,” Pham says. “There is so much that’s still unknown about Alzheimer’s, it’s really cool to be in the lab and to conduct research.”
Sophie Choi, a newly graduated biochemistry major from Richmond, Virginia, worked in Bloom’s lab five semesters, including summers. "Working in a research lab is more exciting than completing a standard class-based lab where you are conducting an experiment that’s designed more to teach you how to conduct research," she says.
“It’s just very cut and dry, with an academic lab, as in, “here is what you expect to happen, here is the end result,’ Choi says. “You don’t have that in a research lab. You have a problem you’re trying to research, and you have a strategy on how to go about it, but you don’t actually know what the end result will be, and I think that’s a lot more exciting.… You’re at the forefront of the problem, and you’re trying to address it in a unique way, engaging the parts of your brain that think outside the box.”
KEEPING UP WITH THE RESEARCH
Another key component of the program is a weekly seminar attended by undergraduate and graduate neuroscience students, as well as faculty and post-doctoral researchers. The speaker for the week might be a UVA School of Medicine faculty member or a distinguished international neuroscientist. Before the formal presentation, undergraduates are given extra time to ask the speaker additional questions and explore the possibility of future career and research paths.
Third-year neuroscience major Rachel Dick says the weekly seminar is one of the main reasons why she applied for the program.
“It’s a great way to stay up to date on what’s happening in the neuroscience community and to delve into these highly specialized topics. We get a greater understanding beyond just reading a research paper, says Dick, who is also an Echols Scholar and coxswain on UVA’s women’s varsity rowing team. “It gives you an opportunity to interact with speakers, learn about their careers, ask questions, and maybe get inspired to incorporate some of their work into your own explorations in the lab. That’s not something you’d get in just any neuroscience class.”
Cassidy Burke, another third-year Echols Scholar in the program, says she appreciates the opportunity to meet a wide range of speakers, particularly female scientists who share their experience in the field.
“They’re very forthcoming in the advice they give, not just about their specific research and the science behind it, but also about how they’ve gotten to where they are and the choices they’ve made that have been instrumental to their careers as accomplished scientists,” Burke says.
Keeping up with the breakthroughs in the field discussed in the seminars while managing lab work and a demanding course load can be challenging for students in the program. However, the balance between rigorous research and interdisciplinary coursework carries a strong appeal for the undergraduates who take on the challenge.
Zack Dailey intends to take a gap year after graduating in May to work as an emergency room scribe before applying to medical school. He entered the neuroscience major with little experience reading scientific papers or with the variety of research techniques employed within biology and neuroscience.
“It kind of clicked for me, though, juggling the split between undergraduate research and an interdisciplinary major that includes biology and psychology. It’s definitely prepared me well for the future.”