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Keeping the Promise: Dohanich and Harlan

April 5, 2005

Tulanian Staff
Michael DeMocker

Gary Dohanich, Professor of Psychology and Co-Director of the Neuroscience Major: Debbie Javorsky (N '92) came to my office on a fall afternoon in 1991. I knew Debbie as an exceptional student who had completed two of my courses. I also knew that she was in the midst of conducting a challenging honors thesis with another faculty member on the cognitive effects of juvenile diabetes.

tulspr_05_dohanich_1So, I was a bit surprised when she asked me if I had any research projects in which she could become involved. Her honors thesis was going well and she wanted to broaden her undergraduate experience into another area of research. When I asked her if there was any topic in particular in which she was interested, she replied casually, "How about memory?"

A good rule of thumb in academic research is to stay on task. I had been focused on the study of reproductive endocrinology since graduate school. In the sciences, an undergraduate who works in a research laboratory typically is expected to commit to a project defined by the faculty member. The idea of heading off into a field in which I had limited experience was nothing less than terrifying but, at the same time, intriguing.

And there was something about this eager undergraduate that inspired a leap of faith. Debbie began an experiment to study the effects of estrogen on memory in female rats the next week. Like all research, her progress was marked by failure and frustration. However, like all successful research, her persistence won out.

The rest of the story is the history of my laboratory since that fall afternoon in 1991. The new research direction initiated by this undergraduate led us to a trove of journal publications, federal grants, doctoral dissertations, master's theses, and honors theses. Faculty members fortunate enough to work at top research universities such as Tulane struggle to meet the demands of maintaining nationally recognized research programs, serving the administrative needs of the university, and providing a high-quality educational environment for students.

Faced with these pressures, students sometimes can be placed on the lowest rung of a faculty member's priorities. A wise professor learns, however, that Tulane students are not just one of the human elements that make a university, but valued partners who we teach and from whom we learn. Debbie Javorsky was only one of many students who have educated me during my 20 years at Tulane.

The lessons are diverse, ranging from two tireless undergraduates who worked in my laboratory during my first four years at Tulane to the curious student whose questions keep me honest in class. American universities are being transformed by the pressures of today's educational market. Faculty and administration struggle with this reality daily.

As a member of Tulane's faculty, my focal point remains the student, whether helping to create a new major in neuroscience, offering an extra review session, or sitting with an anxious student for an hour to provide advice on courses, careers and even life. Clearly, the lifeblood of a university like Tulane remains our students.

Richard Harlan, Professor of Structural and Cellular Biology and Director of the Neuroscience Program: When I arrived at Tulane Medical School in the fall of 1985, I was one of a small group of faculty working in the field of neuroscience. The year was a historic one for neuroscience at Tulane, as it marked the beginning of the Tulane Neuroscience Program -- a graduate program that was the first at Tulane to span both the Health Sciences Center and uptown campuses, and the first to be interdisciplinary.

tulspr_05_harlan_1In a way, this program serves as a metaphor for the field of neuroscience, which encompasses both basic science and clinical science, from the study of processes at the subcellular level to the study of how the human brain works in living beings. In this program, "bench" scientists and physician-scientists work side by side to teach and train students in all aspects of this important discipline. In many ways, neuroscience is the final frontier.

As the importance of neuroscience grew in the outside world, so too did it grow at Tulane, and I was an active participant in that growth. We recruited more faculty to Tulane's neuroscience community on both campuses. In 1997, I was elected director of the neuroscience program and, along with a newly elected steering committee, I began building a stronger graduate program. But the potential for creating something larger was clearly evident.

We knew it was important to increase the interactions among neuroscientists on the uptown and Health Sciences Center campuses. We've done this, in part, by establishing an undergraduate, interdepartmental degree program in neuroscience, which has proven to be the fastest-growing major in the history of the liberal arts and sciences at Tulane and one of the most popular majors as well.

Tulane is one of only a handful of institutions to offer a laboratory course in neuroscience at the undergraduate level, and the establishment of this course has been a joint effort of faculty on both campuses. My uptown colleagues and I also have established a rare, one-year master's degree in neuroscience, which is offered elsewhere by only a small number of peer schools.

Tulane's strategic plan has identified neuroscience as a major area for growth, and the feeling of shared excitement is evident and reflected in the support we have received through the Wall Funds and in a proposal we are making to create a universitywide neuroscience center. It also is reflected in the highly successful Presidential Symposium on neuroscience we hosted in January 2001 and, in the following year, the creation of the Tulane-Xavier Center for Substance Abuse Research and Prevention.

Finally, the excitement is reflected in a collaborative effort with our colleagues at the Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center to establish core re-search facilities through the Louisiana Neuro-biotechnology Initiative. It's been quite a ride since 1997. Tulane has allowed me to grow professionally. I'm still a researcher and teacher, but I've also had a hand in building programs that have had a major impact on the lives of students, faculty and the university as a whole. Few other universities could have provided me this opportunity.

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