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School Neuroscience expands its summer research, eyes study abroad program

The fast-growing School of Neuroscience has be­come a star attraction not only in the College of Science, but the university as a whole, all in a mere three years after its founding.

The school is expanding its 2018 summer research pro­gram that allows undergraduate students to work alongside faculty in laboratory settings in Blacksburg and Roanoke. And for 2019, the school is eyeing a study abroad experi­ence that will bring students to the Steger Center in Riva San Vitale, Switzerland, for a three-week experience that includes excursions to surrounding countries including Germany and Italy.

“In only its third year of existence, the School of Neuro­science has grown to more than 600 students,” said Harald Sontheimer, the I.D. Wilson Chair and professor of neu­roscience, and executive director of the School of Neuro­science, adding that the school prides itself on a hands-on minds-on education.

More than 90 students are currently enrolled in indepen­dent research.

This summer, the school’s Undergraduate Summer Re­search Program again will allow students to work full-time for 10 weeks in neuroscience laboratories on campus and at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Center in Roa­noke. Launched last year with seed funds from the estate of James and Lillian Gay and the Washington, D.C.-based law firm of EngelNovitt PLLC, each student is provided a $3,500 scholarship.

James Gay was a Virginia Tech alumnus, earning a bach­elor’s degree in biology in 1935. He died in 2015 and was posthumously inducted into the college’s Hall of Distinc­tion in 2016. EngelNovitt is led by John Engel, a longtime supporter of the College of Science, and a member of the college’s Round­table Advisory Board. Addition­al support for the 2018 summer experience will come from the School of Neuroscience Under­graduate Fellowship Fund. 

The late James Gay

The late James Gay
The late James Gay

Among the participants in the 2017 summer session was Madi­son O’Donnell, of Forest, Virgin­ia, and a then-senior. “Being able to spend 40-plus hours in the lab every week gave me the opportunity to be taught many lab techniques by my mentors and gain experiences that I would not have gotten anywhere else,” she said.

Kristin Phillips is a collegiate professor of neuroscience and associate director of undergraduate programs for the School of Neuroscience. “Without our donors, such as James and Lillian Gay and EngelNovitt, we would not be in a posi­tion to provide such an engaging and valuable opportunity for our undergraduates,” Phillips said. “These gifts are ded­icated to promoting scientific excellence in the next genera­tion of scientists and thus support our undergraduates.”

Phillips is now leading 2019 efforts to bring neurosci­ence and pre-med students to Switzerland to explore Global Perspectives in Medicine and Neuroscience. Stu­dents will examine the cultural differences in diagnosis, clinical treatment, and societal views of neurological dis­orders such as psychiatric illnesses and Alzheimer's dis­ease, with excursions to Germany and Italy. Sontheimer is co-leading the project.

“It will be a one-of-a-kind program at Virginia Tech,” Phillips said