For senior Stephanie Gonzalez, watching her great-grandmother suffer with Alzheimer’s disease set her down the road for a remedy. Neuroscience would be her vehicle.
Since arriving in Boston, Stephanie has been speeding toward that goal, examining the impact of perceived racism on regions of the brain related to Alzheimer’s, as well as the therapeutic impact of exercise on those same areas.
But getting from there to here wasn’t always easy, she recalls.
One class in particular, Principles of Neuroscience, gave her trouble, to the point that she was considering dropping the major. She reached out to her professor for help on a challenging assignment. Even though his office hours were full, he made the time. “He explained everything, but didn’t give the information to me. He said, ‘You can figure this out, I know you know this.’ He believed in me, that I had the capability to do well in that course. He gave me the confidence I didn’t know I had. Everything changed after that.”
“It completely changed the way that I thought. It completely changed my career. It completely changed everything.”
She quickly learned that the accessibility and approachability of some of the field’s leading minds was baked into the BU culture. “Having access to iconic figures as faculty who are inspirations to so many neuroscientists was really cool.”
That support, along with Stephanie’s newfound confidence, would lead to a double major, two semesters in the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program looking at the relationship between exercise and Alzheimer’s disease, and a research position at the Brain Plasticity & Neuroimaging Laboratory at the Chobanian & Avedisian School of Medicine, where she conducts research on human subjects and is involved in data collection and analysis.
“For my senior thesis, I’m exploring the connection between perceived racism and discrimination and lower cortical volume in regions of the brain related to Alzheimer’s,” she says. “Racism and intolerance are not just social problems. They literally affect your brain structure and the way you live and your longevity.”
While Stephanie is from Houston, Texas, by way of El Tigre, Venezuela, she says she has found an intellectual home in Boston. BU not only challenged her in the acquisition of knowledge, she says, but in her understanding of who she is and what she is capable of. She even carved out the space to take the helm at the Mind & Brain Society and launch a student coalition in the neuroscience program. She lays all the credit at the feet of her professors, lab instructors, and advisors, and has been inspired to follow in their footsteps.
“I am now aspiring to get my PhD,” she says. “My goal is to go into academia. I realized at BU that I really enjoyed imparting knowledge and discussing the topics I’m passionate about.”
We recently caught up with Stephanie to learn more about her academic path at BU.
Q: How did you discover BU’s neuroscience program?
A: Between my junior year and senior year of high school, I attended a neuroscience camp, CampNeuro. They had lecturers come in, including from BU, and I got really interested. I started researching neuroscience college programs. At BU, the program is really well thought out. You not only get overall neuroscience, but you can pick a track—like cognitive neuro, computational neuro, or neurobiology. You didn’t have to narrow your choices. At the time, the director of the neuroscience program at BU was Dr. Paul Lipton, who founded the program with Dr. Howard Eichenbaum, whom I’d heard about from that neuro camp I mentioned. Having access to iconic figures as faculty, who are inspirations to so many neuroscientists, was really cool. I was very impressed.
Q: When you arrived on campus, what was your intention with neuroscience?
A: My intention was medical school. But that idea quickly shifted as I realized I preferred scientific inquiry and research. Every time I pursued something medical, I always became more interested in exploring the issues rather than treating them. If I look back on it, it’s insane how much you learn, and change, in four years.
Q: Was there a medical issue you hoped to address through neuroscience?
A: I had a very specific interest in Alzheimer’s disease, because my great-grandmother had Alzheimer’s. I saw her on her deathbed going through it. So that always stuck in my head. All the research I’ve ever done has been related to Alzheimer’s disease in one way, shape, or form, from spreading awareness of how to treat it to how to prevent it.
Q: How has that played out in your studies on campus?
A: I participated in UROP (Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program) for two semesters, looking at the relationship between exercise and cortical volume in the brain in areas that relate to Alzheimer’s disease.
And for my senior thesis, I researched the relationship between perceived racism and discrimination and lower cortical volume in regions of the brain related to Alzheimer’s. This poses the idea that we should be looking at these stress factors and putting policies in place nationwide that address these issues. Racism and intolerance are not just social problems. They literally affect your brain structure and the way you live and your longevity.
Q: When you first arrived on campus as a freshman, was there anything that surprised you academically?
A: If I’m completely honest, when I first came in, I had terrible academic discipline. And that hit me like a rock. I was used to getting As in high school and I thought I was just going to do what I always did. And then I took chemistry and physics. So I was really challenged academically at the beginning, how to take information in and what it meant to learn something. I think I came in with the intention just to achieve. So I started pinpointing what I actually wanted to learn and how I wanted to apply it to my field of interest and to my career.
Q: What would you advise a high-achieving high school student like yourself coming into this more rigorous academic environment?
A: In FY 101 when you’re a peer mentor, you teach one class, and I focused my class on this: finding out what you really like to do. BU is very focused on allowing you to explore, so if you’re not really doing the things that you like, you’re not necessarily going to get the best grades and achieve the most you can. So for that class, I had them take a personality test and evaluate why they were doing the things that they were doing. So, if you’re a pre-med, why do you want to go to medical school? Is there something that you really love about medicine that you could explore now? Or is your intention vague? So I asked them to explore their mindsets in order to get out of an academic rut. Some of them completely changed their majors after that class.
Q: Are there any faculty relationships that have had a notable impact on you?
A: The thing that I liked most about the neuroscience program is that the faculty and staff are really well integrated into student life. You’d come into the office and you can talk to the director, talk to the administrator, talk to the lab techs. They all know each other and they all know you. It was like a family. I had a really close relationship with Paul Lipton, who was the director of the program at the time. I’ve cried in his office so many times, “What do I do with my life?” He gave us advice, he’d come to lunch with us, once he invited us to his apartment for a meal. We just talked about neuroscience and our interests. We had a really close relationship with him. I still talk to him often.
Q: Was there a particular academic moment where the light bulb went off and you felt transformed?
A: Yes, and it’s something that lives in my brain all the time. I had a very good experience my sophomore year with Dr. Shoai Hattori. He was a lecturer of neuroscience at the time and the lab instructor. That was one of the hardest classes, Principles in Neuroscience. I had slacked off a little bit and went into a presentation unprepared and he challenged me and I panicked and just stood there for what felt like 10 minutes.
I went home and wrote in my journal that I felt so lost because I didn’t know how to learn or engage with the material. I felt like I wasn’t on the right trajectory, and I thought about dropping the major. Then I emailed the professor and said, “Please help. I really need to know what’s going on and I can’t figure it out on my own.” He said, “My office hours are full, but I’m going to meet with you after lab today.” He had a full day ahead of him and decided that at 6 pm, after his super long day, he was going to meet with me for an hour. So when I was in his office, it was just the two of us. He sat there and he explained everything, but he didn’t give the information to me. He said, “You can figure this out, I know you know this.” He believed in me, that I had the capability to do well in that course. He gave me the confidence I didn’t know I had. Everything changed after that.
Q: Is there one extracurricular activity that stands out for you?
A: The Mind & Brain Society has been my special project since I became president two years ago. It’s an interdisciplinary space where people can get together and talk about issues from a neuroscience perspective. If you want to talk about economics, let’s talk about neuro-economics—how do people think in relation to how they buy stock or make decisions in the workplace? Or how do we develop AI? We brought in speakers and had outreach programs, where we’d go into public schools and teach kids about neuroscience at interactive stations.
The Mind & Brain Society is very related to my major, but the interesting thing is I’ve learned so much about leadership, about outreach, and about myself and what I actually like. I learned that I like to teach, but also how to manage a team and build a community. I learned a lot of routine administrative things that will translate well into bigger workplaces. It completely changed the way that I thought. It completely changed my career. It completely changed everything.