Julio J. Ramirez

Davidson College
2004 DTS Award

Dr. Julio J. Ramirez
R. Stuart Dickson Professor
Department of Psychology
Davidson College

NSF Award Recognition

Jeanne L. Narum, Director, Project Kaleidoscope, interviewing Dr. Julio J. Ramirez.

If a visitor were to come into your classroom/lab - the environment in which you work with students - what impression would s/he leave with?

“Wow, that was a high-energy lab!” Our laboratory environment reflects our eclectic approach to neuroscience, which is a mixture of neuroanatomy, neurophysiology and behavior. The laboratory walls are adorned with a collection of prints ranging from Georgia O’Keefe to “Techno-Brain” and the rooms are filled with music ranging from Amadeus Mozart to Brandy to Paquito D’Rivera. In one corner of the lab, a senior majoring in neuroscience will have been teaching a sophomore psychology major how to properly place a coverslip on a section of brain tissue attached to a glass slide. Across from them, the lab tech will have just finished running a histochemical reaction on brain material from one of our experiments. In the adjacent room, which houses our microscopy laboratory, a pair of junior biology majors will have been analyzing brain sections on our image analysis system and a senior psychology major with a neuroscience concentration will have just completed reading a paper relevant to our research effort. The lab throbs with the energy of youth, discovery, art and science.

What brought you to an interest in "advancing the frontiers of education" and to connecting your research to that work?

I never actually planned on “advancing the frontiers of education” so much as I planned on improving the educational experience of neuroscience students. The community of neuroscience educators is rich with talent and experience. As I saw it, the primary obstacle to enhancing the education of college students studying neuroscience was the absence of an organization that could address the needs of the neuroscientists responsible for educating them. So in 1991, Sally Frutiger, Steven George, Denny Smith and I launched a national organization (Faculty for Undergraduate Neuroscience, FUN) with the express purpose of solidifying the community of neuroscience educators. Our principal goals at the time were to support faculty development, to provide a mechanism enabling national discourse on neuroscience education, and to provide travel funds to outstanding undergraduate neuroscience students so they could attend the annual meetings of the Society for Neuroscience. The organization has grown to over 300 members and now encourages students and their mentors to present their research both on the floor of the Society for Neuroscience meeting as well as at the Poster Session of the FUN annual meeting.

A little closer to home, my intention at Davidson College was to fuse teaching and research so that my students could benefit from learning how to conduct scientific research while simultaneously contributing to the neuroscience field. I coined a term at Davidson to indicate this fusion: “terching,” the combination of teaching and research. Students are immersed in some form of original scientific research from their first course in behavioral neuroscience to their advanced neuroscience courses wherein they conduct independent investigations. The research they conduct in my laboratory is part of our research program focusing on the functional significance of lesion-induced hippocampal plasticity. By encouraging them to conduct research that is part of my research effort, I can model how a scientist undertakes a program of scientific research, I can guide them through the nuances of the neuroscientific literature, and I can expose them to the techniques with which I have some expertise. A major goal of our program is to have students present our findings at national meetings and to have them contribute to the publications that are submitted to peer-reviewed journals. Simultaneously, while they learn the ins-and-outs of the scientific enterprise as my junior colleagues, they contribute substantially to the advancement of my research program. They are thus introduced to the joy, sweat, and tears of scientific discovery; and they energize the research program to which they are pivotal contributors.

Were there risks in doing this? What were they? What made you persevere? How have you documented the successes of your educational efforts?

As with anything else worthwhile, there were indeed risks. On the national stage, one of the greatest risks was whether I could secure federal funding to undertake scientific research relying almost exclusively on undergraduate research assistants. When I first started in the early 1980s, this model of education, which was more common at predominantly undergraduate institutions (PUI), raised the eyebrows of many colleagues at research universities who found it hard to believe that undergraduates could contribute meaningfully to a bona-fide research program. I would occasionally encounter resistance at the level of grant reviews when reviewers were incredulous that undergraduates could be capable of contributing to cutting-edge research. Nonetheless, working with supportive program officers at federal agencies, we were able to demonstrate that undergraduates could indeed serve as young colleagues in these PUI settings.

At the local level, a risk was whether such a model of education would be accepted by colleagues who conceived of teaching and research as separate activities and who viewed research as antithetical to the mission of a liberal arts college. How can professors be completely invested in educating students, when research questions call them to the laboratory or to the library? For many of my colleagues, what drove this concern was whether a student’s education (the raison d’être of a liberal arts college) would suffer from a lack of attention on the part of the professor. Discussions about the role of research at a liberal arts college continued throughout the 1980s as my colleagues and I demonstrated that engaging students in original scientific research was a very effective approach to educating college students. By the 1990s, Davidson College fully embraced the importance of involving students in scientific research with their professors.

I persevered because of my conviction that contributing to educational reform efforts both at my own campus and nationally would create an ethos enabling faculty to integrate teaching and research in their pursuits of excellence in the classroom, in the laboratory, or in the field. Personally, I can’t think of a career more fulfilling and rewarding than sharing the passion for the exploration of the unknown and the joy of discovery with eager and energetic undergraduate students. Despite the skepticism both locally and nationally, I was certain that the integration of teaching and research at PUIs, that the transformation of undergraduate students from merely passive consumers of knowledge to explorers traversing unknown terrain, would benefit our students, our institutions, and our Nation.

Pursuing this educational approach was challenging at times, particularly when grant reviewers and colleagues were less than enthusiastic about this new educational model. As an educator, I came to rely on my experiences as a researcher. One of the attributes of a successful scientist is having “thick skin.” Every scientist knows that teasing the truth out of nature may take persistence and patience. After extensive toiling and some clever cajoling of nature, the truths may flow from the research, but one must be prepared for the possibility that a truth may be a rejected hypothesis. The lessons I learned as a researcher informed my efforts to risk failure while seeking to improve the educational experience of undergraduate neuroscience students and to strengthen the support of the faculty educating them.

Sharing the outcome of our educational efforts is critical to ensuring continued success of our program as well as to supporting efforts by other faculty interested in experimenting with our approach to education and research. We have used a number of venues to present our program including meetings of the Council on Undergraduate Research (CUR), FUN, the Society for Neuroscience, and Project Kaleidoscope (PKAL). A number of journals and websites are available to publish the outcomes of programs such as ours and we have published descriptions, assessments, and reflections on our program as well as on models of neuroscience education in journals such as the CUR Quarterly, The Neuroscientist, and the PKAL website.

What connections have been of most value in pursuing these efforts, within your campus community as well as in the broader professional communities to which you belong?

On Davidson College’s campus, securing support during the mid- to late-1980s from the Dean (Dr. Robert Williams at the time) and our Department Chairs (in my case Dr. Edward Palmer of the Psychology Department) was crucial. Garnering their support came out of numerous meetings and informal discussions about integrating teaching and research as a method to educate Davidson’s students. As I mentioned earlier, by the late 1980s there was sufficient interest on campus to hold faculty-wide meetings to discuss the role of research in a liberal arts setting. Fortunately, Davidson’s administration was willing to gamble on this educational model and supported the efforts of faculty who shared this vision of education. To a large extent, obtaining financial support from federal agencies such as the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Institutes of Health as well as investment from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute was of paramount importance in persuading the administration and our colleagues that broadening the educational ethos at Davidson College to include student-faculty research collaboration was a worthwhile endeavor.

In the neurosciences specifically, the founding of FUN was an essential element in pursuing this educational model. With that organization, the efforts to integrate neuroscience teaching and research at PUIs and research universities could be linked at a national level. Colleagues were emboldened by successful efforts at other schools and launched their own neuroscience programs based on the integration of teaching and research. Three national conferences (Davidson College in 1995; Oberlin College in 1998; Trinity College in 2001) were held to share this approach, to create blueprints for teaching neuroscience at the undergraduate level, and to share innovative laboratory experiences in hands-on workshop sessions. The meetings might not have occurred had it not been for the partnership that FUN forged with PKAL. Jeanne, you and your colleagues at PKAL have been tremendously supportive of FUN’s efforts to enhance and promote undergraduate neuroscience education. Recently, a partnership involving FUN, CUR and the Society for Neuroscience was extraordinarily important in promoting the integration of teaching and research at PUIs. Working together, these organizations were able to persuade the National Institutes of Health to raise the cap on Academic Research Enhancement Awards from $100K to $150K for a maximum three-year grant. This 50% increase in the cap dramatically enhances the ability of faculty at PUIs to engage their students in cutting-edge research across the biomedical sciences.

For faculty at an early career stage, it is difficult to figure out how to balance responsibilities for research and teaching while having a personal life; any advice - for them and for faculty at any stage?

Maintaining a sense of humor, establishing a good network of friends and colleagues, nurturing good relationships with one’s students, and getting time for oneself may be key ingredients for flourishing in PUI environments while perched atop the tightrope. Given the nature of teaching and research, a faculty member stands the chance of being completely consumed by the work and risks losing contact with friends and family. I always recommend to junior faculty to guard their personal time vigorously, lest they burn out and lose the energy and passion that brought them to academia in the first place. Each individual has to determine for her- or himself what that balance might be (given institutional tenure requirements, etc.), but when signs of stress begin to appear (difficulty sleeping, loss of concentration, or anxiety, for example) one has probably crossed the threshold. I seriously doubt that the “balance” is a fixed value, so we should assess how we’re doing on a regular basis throughout our careers, which will hopefully evolve and keep us challenged and productive. Indeed, some faculty at later stages in their careers may be less concerned with balancing career and personal life than they are with declining enthusiasm for their work.

Having been around faculty who have been teaching and doing research for over thirty years and who continue to be energized by their work, I’ve decided that several of the suggestions that apply to junior faculty may still apply to more seasoned faculty. One in particular is maintaining a network of friends and colleagues, maintaining the sense of connectedness with others who share a commitment to education and research. Being integrated into our broader community (i.e., our scholarly societies and professional organizations) and contributing to our disciplines as educators and researchers can be very powerful salves for waning career interest. Energy and passion are infectious. Friends and colleagues will often generously share theirs to give a much-needed boost to those of us who are feeling less than enthusiastic about our careers. A phone call to an old friend-and-colleague can be a very important first step in getting us out of a career slump.

What kind of institutional culture needs to be in place to nurture careers of faculty actively seeking to integrate their research and education?

An institution’s chief academic officer and the department chairpersons must be willing to gamble on faculty who are attempting to integrate teaching and research. Reward systems and tenure policies should be supportive of integrating teaching and research as a valid pedagogical approach, involving students in the research enterprise in substantive and meaningful ways, encouraging student involvement in the outcome of scholarly activity (e.g., presentations at conferences and publishing), and conducting research on pedagogical issues within a faculty member’s field of science. Raising money to support one’s research in which students are collaborators is an intense and time-consuming process. I suspect that PUIs with the strongest track records are those that have infrastructures and policies enabling faculty to undertake grant-writing projects. Examples of support include offices of “Grants and Contracts” (which handle institutional data gathering for an application, copying and binding of the applications and supporting documentation, or uploading of the application to the appropriate agencies), release time allowing a faculty member to prepare an application, public acknowledgment of successful grant efforts, and faculty development funds to train the faculty member in grantspersonship.

What can be done at the national level to encourage and support efforts like yours and those of many other leading agents of change on campuses across the country?

Few things have as tremendous an impact on the culture of an educational institution as the imprimatur of a federal agency or private foundation. Mechanisms at federal agencies and private foundations recognizing faculty efforts to integrate teaching and research are pivotal in persuading institutions to embark on this educational model. The DTS program is an excellent example of just such a mechanism. Indeed, the NSF has been a truly potent force in increasing institutional appreciation for the integration of teaching and research at PUIs. Generously funding and broadening programs that enhance the training of faculty who are committed to integrating teaching and research (such as the NSF CAREER Awards for new investigators as well as the “teaching-research postdocs” supported by the most recent round of Howard Hughes Medical Institute grants and the Discovery Corps initiative at the Chemistry Division of the NSF) and that promote the involvement of students in a faculty member’s research program (such as the NSF’s Research in Undergraduate Institutions program and the Academic Research Enhancement Award at the National Institutes of Health) are crucial to solidifying and expanding the efforts of the education communities seeking to integrate teaching and research. Supporting conferences and workshops (such as those organized by PKAL) that prepare faculty to embark on this educational path is tremendously important. As a case in point, within the neuroscience community the PKAL-sponsored conferences were responsible for bringing our community together for the first time to engage in a national dialogue focusing on the nature of a neuroscience education at the undergraduate level and the importance of research experience as part of this education.

Please tell us about the project that you will be undertaking as part of the DTS award. How can others be involved with and/or continue to be informed about your work?

The SOMAS Program (Support of Mentors and their Students) in the neurosciences builds on successful summer research programs that encourage students to conduct research with their mentors at their home institutions. The Program will make six grants of about $10,000 apiece for a summer research effort to junior faculty who have little experience in writing grants and to faculty from institutions that serve women or under-represented minorities in the sciences. A particularly exciting aspect of the Program is the mentoring that will focus on the SOMAS Awardee as well as on the summer research student. Our intention is to guide the Awardees as they implement integrated teaching-and-research programs at their own PUI campuses and to help their students prepare for entrance into scientific careers. After the students and faculty have completed their summer research, the Program will support their travel to the joint annual meetings of the Society for Neuroscience and FUN that occur in the fall. At the meetings, the students and faculty will present their findings and will attend appropriate workshops on mentoring, applying to graduate school, and preparing grant or fellowship applications. Our goal is to provide mentorship throughout the grant period so the Awardees and their students have the tools to succeed and flourish in their career paths.

Starting this fall, we will be making regular presentations of our programs at national meetings of professional societies. This year we have made plans to unveil the program at the joint annual meetings of the Society for Neuroscience and FUN. In the future we intend to promote the program at meetings of the Association of the Neuroscience Departments and Programs and CUR as well as summer workshops sponsored by Project Kaleidoscope and FUN. As we gather data on the effectiveness of the program, we will share our findings in journals such as Journal of Undergraduate Neuroscience Education. We are presently working on the SOMAS website and will post it in early September, 2004. We will announce the Program widely in listservs/newsletters, for example, of FUN, CUR, PKAL, the Association of Neuroscience Departments and Programs and the Society for Neuroscience.

We welcome interest in the SOMAS Program. In fact, the Program will be seeking seasoned neuroscience faculty who have successfully integrated teaching and research careers at PUIs to serve as mentors to the SOMAS Awardees. We invite visitors to our Program website and we encourage folks to share it with colleagues, especially junior colleagues in the neurosciences who might benefit from a $10,000 grant!