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HHMI, Neuroscience, and Knox: The Spirit of Interdisciplinary Inquiry

By Jane Carlson


A $1 million grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) in 2004 brought a new face and a new area of faculty expertise to the campus and opened new doors for mentored student research in the biomedical sciences. The HHMI grant provides Knox with the funds to develop a major in neuroscience and enhance science education at the College.

These new assets came with the appointment of Esther Penick to the College's first faculty position devoted to neuroscience, one of the most rapidly growing scientific fields of our day. Penick is the essential link between Knox's existing neuroscience offerings and the creation of an advanced interdisciplinary undergraduate program and new major.

Knox was the only college or university in Illinois and one of just 42 nationwide to receive funding from HHMI for undergraduate biomedical science programs in 2004. The four-year grant is the third the College has received from HHMI since 1991.

"No other liberal arts college shares that distinction," says Lawrence Breitborde, vice president for academic affairs and dean of the College. "The award of a third HHMI grant in 13 years reflects the College's continuing strengths in the life sciences and recognition of its reputation for being at the cutting edge of undergraduate science education."

Before Penick came to Knox in fall 2005, she completed a Ph.D. in cellular and clinical neurobiology at Wayne State University and a post-doctoral research fellowship at Brown University. She also received a National Research Service Award from the National Institutes of Health, the Department of Health and Human Services, and the National Institute of Drug Abuse.

But before she was a scientist, Penick received her undergraduate degree in art history from St. Louis University. "That's what you do at a liberal arts college -- you explore a variety of fields," says Penick, who realized after her undergraduate years that she belonged in the sciences.

A neurobiologist with a strong liberal arts background made Penick a logical choice and valuable asset for pushing the neuroscience program forward at Knox with help from the HHMI grant.

"Esther is a great match for the neuroscience program and Knox College," says Heather Hoffmann, professor of psychology and chair of the program in neuroscience. "When she visited Knox, she showed passion for both research and teaching."

Funds from the grant have provided professional development and research stipends for faculty and summer research opportunities and stipends for students; brought visiting speakers and scientists to campus; funded science outreach programs for junior high girls; and equipped Penick's lab with electrodes, electrode holders, a stimulator, an A/D converter and software, and a vibratome to cut tissue slices, all of which are used for both faculty and student research.

Penick, Hoffmann, and Associate Professor of Biology Judith Thorn are the core faculty for the neuroscience program, the roots of which can be traced to 1990, when Hoffmann began developing courses and research to address the biological basis of behavior.

Just as with Knox's HHMI-supported and highly successful biochemistry program -- which launched a major in biochemistry and the addition of Knox's first biochemist, Janet Kirkley, to the faculty in 1993 -- the original neuroscience offerings at Knox were developed in response to student interest in a relatively new but rapidly growing field. Also like biochemistry, the neuroscience program at Knox has flourished due to the faculty's diverse research interests and their collaborative efforts to provide a broad-based interdisciplinary science curriculum for undergraduates.

Numerous students created self-designed majors in neuroscience and went on to related graduate study and careers in science and medicine before the formal major was implemented in 2006. Under Hoffmann's lead, Knox began offering a minor in behavioral neuroscience in 2002 and had five graduates in the minor the first year.

But the HHMI grant -- now in its third year -- has allowed the program to expand, through the faculty position, new equipment, and funds for faculty research and development. With Penick providing the biological approach to the study of brain disorders and functions, the College maintained the behavioral neuroscience minor during the 2005-06 academic year. At the same time, the core faculty collaboratively worked to build the new neuroscience major and minor by participating in workshops sponsored by Project Kaleidoscope, a National Science Foundation initiative to improve the quality of undergraduate science education. The major and minor were added for the 2006-07 academic year, and 10 students declared neuroscience majors the first term it was offered.

Thorn equates Penick's role in the development of the neuroscience curriculum to the center stone that completes a ring. "We had all of the stones going around, but we needed the center," Thorn says.

The new courses in neuroscience provide a foundation for courses taught by cooperating faculty from the biochemistry, biology, psychology, and computer science departments. "The rest of the major is pulling from what we already have," Hoffmann explains. As a whole, the program combines interdisciplinary coursework with rich research opportunities to prepare students for graduate and medical school and for careers in fields ranging from pharmacology and counseling to public health and science writing.

"The neuroscience program is moving forward quickly," Penick says. "Both faculty and students have broad interests from the molecular to the behavioral level, which we have integrated into our new classes. We will continue to involve students both in the curriculum and in research projects."

Hoffmann and Penick team-teach Neuroscience I, one of the core courses for the new major and minor in neuroscience. Thorn sits in on each class period and teaches a supplemental, one-credit hour course to help psychology students with biology methods and terminology. The trio of faculty -- comprised of an experimental psychologist, a neurobiologist, and a molecular biologist -- is emblematic of Knox's shared commitment, across the sciences and the campus, to integrate disciplines in creative and productive ways.

"The most important questions of our day are ones that require exploration from multiple perspectives," says Breitborde. "The spirit of interdisciplinary inquiry at Knox College will help assure the success of our HHMI grant and our new neuroscience program."

Esther Penick, assistant professor of biology, is the College's first faculty member devoted to neuroscience. More information on Professor Pennick . . .