Neuroscience Faculty and Students Develop Study Abroad Program in Panama


Photo courtesy of Sarah Lopez '17 | Sarah Lopez ’17 snaps a selfie with Lydia Ross ’17 on La Cruz Trail at Altos de Campana National Park.  

Rachel Farber '16 Assistant News Editor

During J-term, students and faculty members from the neuroscience department traveled to Panama in an effort to establish a study abroad program there.  The department’s goal in creating a program is to give their students the opportunity study abroad and to broaden their experiences beyond the laboratory.    

Mary Harrington, Tippet Professor in the  Life Sciences, Assistant Professor of Biological Sciences Lisa Mangiamele and Dean for International Study Rebecca Hovey were the primary organizers of the trip.

“We aimed to work collaboratively with Smith students to design a J-term course that will introduce neuroscience majors to neuroethology  – the study of animal diversity    and evolutionary forces that shape the nervous system,” Harrington said.

The neuroscience major consists of the completion of approximately 54 credits, 47 of which are required core courses. While studying abroad as a neuroscience major is possible, the completion of requirements is restrictive, and limited study abroad options can derail the completion of the major.

“[W]e’re so often discouraged from going abroad, or when it’s possible to make it work, leaving Smith takes away research opportunity and experience in which many majors are otherwise involved,” Sarah Lopez ’17 said in an email. “It’s unfortunate to feel like we’re giving something up by either making the choice to stay or by going abroad.”

Lydia Ross ’17 said that the opportunity for neuroscience majors to study abroad expands their experiences, not only through the ability to travel somewhere new but also through the work that can be done outside the lab.

“In general, the research that neuroscience students are exposed to at Smith is based in highly controlled laboratory settings, as is a vast majority of work done in the field,” Lopez said,  “The incredible biodiversity that Panama has really lends itself to a unique experience in field work that is difficult to get as an undergrad.”

Lopez said the trip gave her an opportunity to do a different kind of work than that offered in the laboratories at Smith.     

“The aim of this trip was to fill a void in the education of neuroscience majors in order to broaden their experience beyond work with laboratory animals that have been selectively bred for generations and are nearly genetically identical. The broader, more naturalistic approach to neuroscience is especially interesting when considering evolution of organisms or of very specific traits, behaviors or morphologies.”

Lopez, Ross and other students are working to make the ten days they spent in Panama over J-term an official course option.  They plan to present at a Scientific Research Society Sigma Xi talk in April.

“The trip is important not only because of the concrete research skills and experience that it could provide but also for its role in providing an entirely different perspective on the role and application of neuroscience,” Ross said.

“Ultimately, I think our pilot trip could really turn into something great that neuro majors will enjoy and learn from for years to come,” Lopez said.