The Tulane Undergraduate Research in Neuroscience: Exploring the Mysteries of the Brain

By Benjamin Morris

The Tulane Undergraduate Research in Neuroscience: Exploring the Mysteries of the Brain

James Love @ TURN 2015
poster session.

For such a small organ, it is a source of some wonder that the study of the brain is so large. Now one of the fastest-growing areas of medical and biological research, neuroscience is a top career choice for aspiring physicians and researchers seeking to enter graduate-level work. Yet opportunities as an undergraduate to directly participate in neuroscience research can be few and far between — except, that is, for Tulane undergraduates.

The Tulane Undergraduate Research in Neuroscience program (TURN), now in its eighth year of operation in the Neuroscience Program in the School of Science and Engineering at Tulane, offers students the chance to engage in an eight-week intensive summer research experience at the forefront of current brain research. Taking place every June and July, TURN pairs approximately 15 undergraduates with graduate students and faculty members currently engaged on federally funded projects, introducing them to the rigors and requirements of the field.

Students apply in the spring, nominated by their faculty advisor. Participants are typically upperclassmen, with freshmen and sophomores encouraged to investigate the program before applying. (The program also welcomes recent graduates staying at Tulane for the neuroscience master’s program.) While traditionally TURN has only been open to Tulane students, Dr. Laura Schrader, Associate Professor of Cell and Molecular Biology and a member of the Neuroscience faculty, notes that recent years have seen the program expand to include undergraduates from other New Orleans universities as well. The hope, she says, is to increase the offerings for neuroscience research throughout the region, and eventually, to open the door for students from universities across the country.

For students considering neuroscience as a career, whether for clinical or academic work down the road, the opportunity is unlike any other. TURN spans all three Tulane campuses—Uptown, downtown (the Tulane Health Sciences Center), and the Primate Center — and involves faculty from all Departments that contribute to the Neuroscience Program. The projects run the gamut of current neuroscience research, including neural engineering and investigation of neurodegeneration exploring the effects of hormones on memory, and determining factors leading to PTSD in children. Alongside collecting data in the labs, participants also prepare presentations for weekly meetings, present their findings to their group, and cap off the experience with a poster session modeled after a formal academic conference.

Former TURN participants note that this training was key for their development as scientists. Claire Stelly, now a doctoral candidate in neuroscience at the University of Texas-Austin, recalled that “The group-meeting format allowed me to get feedback on my project from my peers and faculty. We would critique experimental design, data analysis and interpretation, which helped me organize my thoughts and draft a stronger honors thesis the following semester. For anyone planning on heading to graduate school, this is the sort of thing you do routinely in lab meetings, so it’s great practice for prospective doctoral students.”

Unlike other summer research opportunities where students must bring their own resources to the table, TURN is funded by the Tulane Neuroscience Program. This structure enables the program to pay its participants a stipend, freeing them to focus on what matters most: their work. The benefits are clear, both for the student and for the project at hand. Dr. Jill Daniel, Professor of Psychology and Director of the Tulane Neuroscience Program, notes that summer is often the most productive time for research, and that this immersion experience “allows a more realistic taste of a full-time research environment, without the other pressures and distractions going on during the [academic] year.”

During these two months, participants are considered colleagues, not merely students. Though they work under the supervision of graduate students and faculty, their insights, opinions and ideas are regarded equally by the group members. Participants often serve as coauthors on refereed publications, and their feedback in weekly meetings is highly valued. “They’re not just an extra set of hands,” Daniel says. “They’re a part of the team.”

Granted, participants in TURN come from a variety of backgrounds — not every student has formal training in neuroscience prior to participating in the program — so faculty members ensure instruction in basic lab techniques, methodologies, and ethics. Many of the techniques are specific to each lab, so participants receive exposure to the diversity of neuroscientific approaches. This training increases their appreciation of the complexity of the field, and better equips them to work in interdisciplinary ways.

According to another former TURN participant, this preparation can transform a budding researcher into an experienced one in the course of a single summer. James Love, a current Tulane senior investigating sex differences in the brain areas activated by stress, notes that the 2015 TURN program enlarged his understanding of the field considerably.

“Conducting research has been incredibly rewarding,” Love says. “I’ve always wanted to pursue a career as a physician, but participating in this program has taught me the importance of scientific research in propelling the field of medicine as a whole. Especially after hearing about other students’ research projects — the implications of everyone's research are pretty remarkable.”

Many graduates of the program, Schrader and Daniel both note, eventually pursue medical or postgraduate study. The program aims to instill a respect for basic science, and to expose students to the challenges and rewards of scientific inquiry. Everyone participating in the program, they note, has the foundational passion for knowledge that leads to discoveries — the joy is introducing new students to that experience.

And, Daniel says, nowhere does it better than Tulane. “One of Tulane’s strengths,” she says, “is its tremendous amount of opportunities for learning, mentorship, and growth. We have world-class faculty, multiple campuses, and tiers of engagement that allow for collaborations between faculty, graduate students, and undergrads.”

After all, Schrader adds, the possibilities to change lives and improve health are real, and ever-present: “Our goal is to answer questions,” she says. “We hit the sweet spot between testing the hypotheses our funders pay us to investigate, and nurturing that excitement of groundbreaking neuroscience research.”

To participate in TURN in 2016, interested undergraduates should contact their faculty advisor for more information. Applications are submitted to the Neuroscience Program in the spring.

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