Faculty Spotlight

On the Brain

ACCORDING TO the National Institutes of Health, more than one in three adults in the U.S. are obese. It is a serious health crisis that affects men, women and children. In her lab at Stonehill, Assistant Professor of Biology Nicole Cyr and her students are researching the link between obesity and the brain, exploring why the brain fights to maintain the obese state in some people. SAM asked Cyr how she became interested in her research, what is something we don’t understand about obesity and why the brain—and its 100 billion neurons—is so fascinating to study.

GROWING UP, I THOUGHT I WOULD BECOME: A writer. When I was young, I really enjoyed writing and wrote my first short story in grade school. Later, I became interested in science. Now, I enjoy writing about science.

HOW I BECAME INTERESTED IN BIOLOGY: The middle school science fair. It was the first time I was able to do a project on my own making earthquakes and simulating plates shifting at various strengths. In science labs, I had participated in experiments where we all followed a recipe with a known outcome. However, there was no set outcome for my science fair project. Instead, I had to test a hypothesis and see what happened. It was my first glimpse into the process of discovery, which I still love. Today, I try to volunteer as a science fair judge as much as I can.

WHY I RESEARCH THE LINK BETWEEN OBESITY AND CHANGES IN THE BRAIN: Over the past 20 years, cases of obesity and obesity-related diseases like Type 2 Diabetes in adults and children have risen dramatically. In fact, Type 2 Diabetes was once considered an adult condition but is now being diagnosed in children. In my lab, we are trying to understand the changes in the brain that perpetuate obesity and contribute to the onset of Type 2 Diabetes. By understanding these changes, we hope to find a way to reverse and/or prevent obesity and obesity-associated diseases.

SOMETHING PEOPLE DON’T REALIZE ABOUT OBESITY: Obesity causes biochemical changes in your brain that make it hard to lose weight and keep weight off. While it is possible, your brain fights to maintain the obese state.

THE BRAIN IS FASCINATING TO STUDY BECAUSE: It controls our movements, consciousness, thoughts, feelings, memories, personality and experiences. The more we understand about the brain the more we understand about ourselves.

I OFTEN TELL MY STUDENTS: We can’t avoid all stress, but I believe in the phrase, “Don’t sweat the small stuff.” Stress is bad for your brain. It is really important to find things that make you happy and help to keep your life balanced.

IN MY CLASSES, STUDENTS ARE MOST SURPRISED TO LEARN: That the human body, which is comprised of over 30 trillion cells, develops from one single cell. The development of neurons in the brain is surprising and fascinating. Neurons are created very quickly during early development (at a rate of about 200 neurons/minute), and there are actually more neurons in the  infant brain than the adult brain. There is a process of pruning that takes place to get down to the 100 billion neurons in the adult brain.

WHEN I’M NOT IN THE LAB, I LIKE TO: Spend time with my family. I have a 7-year-old daughter who is very active, so we spend a lot of time at places like Frothingham Park and Borderland State

Fan Behavior

FOR MILLIONS of people, there’s nothing more fun than a big sports event. Associate Professor of Marketing Lee McGinnis counts himself among the enthusiasts who enjoy a good game, but the dark side of sports is on his mind, too.

McGinnis is particularly interested in excessive fan consumption, which occurs when identification with a sports team or entity becomes a major part of a person’s identity.

In a new study on the behaviors of fans of New Zealand’s All Blacks rugby team, McGinnis and his Kiwi co-author, Professor Robert Davis, formerly of Unitec Institute of Technology, use the lens of excessive fan consumption to focus on the connections among the All Blacks, the indigenous Maori and the country of New Zealand, itself.

“New Zealand is very interesting because it’s a small island country of 4.5 million people, and the All Blacks are one of the world’s preeminent rugby teams,” says McGinnis, who serves as co-director of Stonehill’s sports, science and  society minor. “In the study, we unpack excessive fan consumption evolving from countrywide patriotism.”

The study identifies excessive fan consumption behaviors such as social media cyberbullying against those who do not support the All Blacks and fans putting the All Blacks before their own families as a priority.

Alcohol consumption is prevalent at games, and when fans identify so deeply with their team they may react violently if they perceive the team is being treated unfairly.

“ People are engaging in something beyond themselves,
and it becomes a part of self-identity.”
—Lee McGinnis

McGinnis is also quick to point out that “excessive” is not necessarily negative. It can create positive social interactions in communities and, as in New Zealand’s case, deepen a shared sense of patriotism. “People are engaging in something beyond themselves, and it becomes a part of self-identity,” he says. “It can also create a form of social capital, and it can be heartfelt as well.”

Rethinking “Om”

PROFESSOR OF PHILOSOPHY Anna Lännström is asking her students to stretch themselves—existentially, of course, but also literally. In her new course, Yoga, Mindfulness and Indian Philosophy, Lännström includes an hour of hatha yoga so that students can explore mindfulness and yoga as tools to slow down and find balance in their lives.

“One of the things that I’ve been frustrated with is that philosophy can get too theoretical,” says Lännström, who also serves as chair of the Philosophy Department. “You’re reading all of these important ideas, but you're not making any connections to what people do in their regular lives. There’s a gap. I want students to not just talk and think, I want them to do.”

So, together with Rachel Santos ’17, a yoga enthusiast, and Kristy Kuhn, an adjunct professor in the Visual and Performing Arts Department and certified yoga instructor, Lännström developed a course that combines two traditional weekly classroom sessions covering the study of Indian philosophy and its Western adoption with a third session in which Kuhn guides the class in hatha yoga. Santos then leads a discussion examining how the ideas of philosophy and yoga apply to modern lives.

On the surface, it seems like a harmonious match: students learn about Eastern philosophy while also destressing. But this is philosophy, so Lännström’s intent is more complex. While she practices yoga for all of the stereotypical Western reasons— to stretch and calm her body and mind—she is increasingly uncomfortable with its implications.

“You’re taking someone else’s religious tradition and appropriating it as part of your exercise regime,” Lännström says. “This came out of thousands of years of Hindu and Buddhist tradition.”

Those conflicted feelings figure into class conversations. “The aim is for the students to wrestle with these questions and for them to think and talk in a thoughtful way. It’s not about me telling them what to think,” she says. “But when students go to a yoga class and the instructor calls on them to chant, ‘om,’ I want them to think twice about it.”