Faculty expertise, extensive internships translate to success for Stonehill’s neuroscience program

February 5, 2018

Learning what scientists already know wasn’t going to be enough for Courtney Birchall ’14. Her driving passion was to take research where no scientist had yet been.

“I thought to myself, if I am going to spend four years studying something, I want it to be something that no one else has studied or in a field where there is still a lot of room for growth and expansion,” she said.

Few options were as intriguing as the brain, and few colleges offered her the opportunity to be a neuroscience trailblazer starting freshman year.

Courtney chose Stonehill College, and she is not alone. The neuroscience program at Stonehill College combines faculty expertise and extensive internships to consistently place students in top-tier graduate programs and professional positions.

Courtney’s experiences and successes here inspired her to pursue a degree in medicine. She is now in her fourth year at the University of Massachusetts Medical School and is currently applying to a residency program for obstetrics and gynecology.

Stonehill’s Thomas Bellio ’18 was driven by a similar passion. He knew he wanted to devote his time to finding answers to questions his neurologist couldn’t answer for him. After a concussion sophomore year of high school, he learned firsthand that doctors are only just beginning to truly understand the effects of brain trauma.

“I want to spend my life figuring out answers,” Thomas said. “That way, when kids get a concussion, the doctor will no longer need to say, ‘I don’t know what’s wrong with you.’”

John McCoy, director of the neuroscience program, says students often develop a sense of passion and commitment as they explore topics that affect them personally and have importance for everyone’s health.

“Neuroscience is about all of us and what makes us tick,” he said. “It’s what makes us not just move, but perceive things, feel things — our emotions, our thoughts — it’s about all of that.”

Broad faculty expertise prepares students for rapidly changing field

Prof. Heather Yu & Prof. John G. McCoy

Since so little is known about the brain, neuroscience is a rapidly changing field with new technologies and techniques continuously emerging. Because many pertinent discoveries are made in other scientific fields, the neuroscience program at Stonehill College is interdisciplinary. In addition to the four professors on the neuroscience faculty, Stonehill students have the advantage of learning from many others in related disciplines such as biology, chemistry and psychology. It gives students a broader foundation and a more expansive curriculum.  

“I think that the faculty at Stonehill, both in the neuroscience department and the biology, chemistry, physics and psychology departments, are all great educators,” said Courtney. “That is something that I really appreciate about Stonehill to this day — the quality time that I got with my professors and how invested they were in their students.”

As the program has grown over the past 11 years, it has also evolved to reflect growing specialization in the field. Each professor on the faculty is focused in an area of research completely different from the others, allowing them to offer a greater breadth and depth of courses.

For example, Professor Heather Yu’s research, which focuses on brainstem mechanisms that generate vocalization, is published in the Journal of Neurophysiology. Meanwhile, Professor Nicole Cyr conducts research in her on-campus lab on the neuroendocrine basis of obesity. Cathryn Cutia ’19 researches alongside Cyr and says she became interested in neuroscience because it is the central organ of our nervous system.

“They adapt curriculums to the newest techniques that are coming about,” Cathryn said. “We are being offered a new class this fall on a whole new computer technology aspect of neuroscience. They always share the newest technologies and want us to understand every aspect of what is coming about.”

“If I have done anything right as the director, it is to surround myself with supremely talented colleagues, people of high character and integrity who are committed to quality teaching and mentoring,” said McCoy. “In my view, that may well be the single largest reason for any success generated by our neuroscience program.”

Culture of research gives students deeper understanding, competitive advantage

The College offers a variety of resources to students on and off campus, including the Stonehill Undergraduate Research Experience (SURE), which allows students to complete an 8-to-10-week research project working one-on-one with a faculty partner.

“The SURE program is maybe the best co-curricular program on this campus,” said McCoy. “Success after college is not just about good grades; it is also about the experiences you have had. How do you know that you want to do this unless you’ve actually done it? The SURE program gives student researchers the opportunity to try it full time for a whole summer.”

Cyr often has eight to 10 students working in her on-campus lab. Jenn Segawa, the department’s newest faculty member, is also setting up a lab on campus. It will look at the neurological basis of speech and language. Students can research in the labs during the school year, and some students are also selected to complete the SURE program there during the summer.

“I think that is really unique to the college experience,” said Cathryn, who completed the SURE program this summer alongside Cyr. “We are the ones planning out the experiments, carrying them out and problem-solving when they don’t work out. I feel ahead of the game in terms of my career path.”

Experience supplements learning outside of the classroom

SURE isn’t the only research opportunity for students. There are cutting-edge research opportunities available off campus as well as science-focused study abroad programs. These experiences help students further build their skills through hands-on learning.

This fall, Thomas Bellio ’18 left to study abroad in Copenhagen for the semester. While in Denmark, he will work with one of the leading neurologists there.

“I think that one of the really cool things about Stonehill is that we do our own research on campus and it is very high-tech for an undergraduate school,” he said. “But, it is also cool that we can go out to other places that may be bigger than Stonehill and get firsthand experience in graduate-level research that is not necessarily done on campus; but, it is done through the school and scientists who work at the school.”

Science classes accompanied by a lab also help students translate what they are learning in the textbook. Mackenzie Gamble ’16 interned first as a research assistant as part of the Harvard-affiliated VA Boston Healthcare System. He then completed the SURE program there and was hired after graduation as part of the Boston Veterans Affairs Research Institute (BVARI.) He hopes to eventually apply for a doctoral program in neuroscience.

“Experiential learning makes you a more well-rounded science major,” said Mackenzie. “Your coursework is complemented by what you are doing in the lab and vice versa.”

It can also help students reassess their career goals. Courtney, who also completed the SURE program at the Brockton VA, said it helped her decide to pursue clinical work rather than research.

An intern experience also helped fine-tune career focus for Malaika Mckenzie-Bennett ’19, who spent the summer interning at Ginkgo Bioworks in Boston, which specializes in designing custom microbes for customers. Her internship allowed her to work with the company on engineering different functions in yeast. She wants to go into the bioinformatics side of neuropharmacology.

“It has given me a lot of perspective into the different paths you can take and enlightened me to the fact that it isn’t all research,” Malaika said.

Program opens door to many opportunities

A bachelor of science in neuroscience allows students to follow a number of career paths. Some students may choose to go straight into the workforce. That means they could, among many options, work as a research assistant as well as write or work for a medical supply company.

The largest percentage of students who graduate from Stonehill’s neuroscience program, 25 percent, will continue into a doctoral program, while 17 percent will work in research, 15 percent in health care and 12 percent will continue into a master’s program.

Regardless of their next steps, McCoy says their experiences at Stonehill will help them thrive in a competitive field.

 “Boston is the center of biomedical research,” he said. “They are competing against students from Ivy League schools. Our students can compete with any of those students because, a lot of times, our students have more experience than a student from an Ivy League school. Going beyond the campus with these additional internships helps them immeasurably.”