Vassar Celebrates 50 years of Neuroscience and Behavior

Photos by Grace Adams Ward ’24

Vassar students, faculty and alums gathered on campus—and virtually—on April 2 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the College’s Neuroscience and Behavior with Biopsychology program. But the event was also a celebration of how Vassar’s liberal arts curriculum empowers its students to approach science in a multidisciplinary way.

The day-long conference began with presentations by five current members of the neuroscience and behavior faculty. Research projects were described by Associate Professors of Biology Kelli Duncan, Megan Gall, and Justin Touchon; Assistant Professor of Cognitive Science Joshua de Leeuw ’08; and Assistant Professor of Psychological Science Lori Newman.

Assistant Professor of Biology Justin Touchon explains his research on the adaptability of a species of tree frog to those attending the conference.

In the afternoon, four alums who had participated in the Neuroscience and Behavior program took part in a panel discussion titled “On the Study of Science within a Liberal Arts Context.” All of them said Vassar’s approach to learning had enabled them to succeed in their post-Vassar lives. 

Lisa Randolph ’14, a PhD candidate in neurobiology and behavior at Columbia University, said her mentors at Vassar had enabled her to believe she could pursue a career in a challenging academic field. “I arrived at Vassar with a love for biology, but Vassar fortified my curiosity and gave me the space to explore other disciplines,” Randolph said. “Neuroscience was part of that multidisciplinary approach, and my mentors convinced me that I could be a scientist.”

Professor of Biology Kathleen M. Susman (far left) moderates a panel discussion with Vassar alums (left to right) Bindy Crouch ’97, Eve De Rosa ’91, Jillian Shaw ’09, and Lisa Randolph ’14.

Eve De Rosa ’91, Dean of Faculty and Associate Professor of Psychology at Cornell University, said she too had begun her Vassar career planning to major in biology. “Then I discovered the brain,” De Rosa said, “and I was fascinated. I saw the value of a multidisciplinary approach to science; Vassar provided me with that insight.”

Panel moderator Kathleen Susman, Associate Dean of the Faculty and Professor of Biology on the Jacob P. Giraud Jr. Chair, noted that she had been part of Vassar’s neuroscience program for 30 of its 50 years. When she asked the panelists to provide some examples of “particularly riveting” experiences in their academic careers at Vassar, all of them alluded to the close relationships they had had with members of the faculty. “It was my relationship with [Professor Emeritus of Psychological Science] Janet Gray that instilled confidence in me,” said Bindy Crouch ’97, Medical Director for Immunization Infrastructure and Clinical Support at the Bureau of Immunization in the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. “When I became involved in small-group activities in medical school, I realized I excelled at explaining scientific concepts because of my Vassar training.”

Jillian Shaw ’09, editor of the Neuron journal, a peer-reviewed biweekly scientific publication, said she was an aspiring English major when she enrolled at Vassar but then switched to neuroscience. “I felt empowered to study anything I wanted to study,” Shaw said. “I felt like a graduate student who was given the freedom to pursue my interests.”

Shaw said it had become “a lifelong mission” to make neuroscience available to people outside the scientific community. “It was at Vassar that I learned to translate science into lay terms, to explain things clearly to the public, and that is a very important component of science.”

Yale University Neuroscience and Neurobiology Professor Rakic Pasko, Patricia Shoer Goldman-Rakic’s 59 widower, was the keynote speaker at the conference. Photo courtesy of the subject.

The conference also served as a tribute to two members of Vassar’s Class of 1959, twin sisters Patricia Shoer Goldman-Rakic and Ruth Shoer Rappaport. Ruth Shoer Rappaport funded Vassar’s first endowed chair in neuroscience as a tribute to her late sister, who is renowned for her pioneering research on the prefrontal cortex of the brain and its relationship to working memory. Goldman-Rakic’s widower, Pasko Racik, Professor of Neuroscience and Neurobiology at Yale University, joined the conference via Zoom to talk about his late wife’s life and scientific achievements.

April 25, 2022