A Major Addition

It all started with one course offering — Introduction to Neuroscience — in 2001. Then, due to that class’ popularity, more and various courses were presented, and a neuroscience minor was born in 2004. Now, after 19 years to “grow up,” a full-fledged neuroscience major will be offered at Hope College starting with the 2019-20 academic year. The growth of those neuroscience offerings, along with student interest, are due in no small part to the work of the program’s first parent, founding director Dr. Leah Chase, and now its adoptive and new leader, Dr. Gerald Griffin.

Dr. Gerald Griffin and Dr. Leah Chase

The way one neuroscience class resulted in an eventual major is not surprising, given Hope’s solid scientific reputation, yet adding a new major program was not initially the plan, Chase says.  The plan was to offer that one class to employ Chase’s teaching know-how (she’s an associate professor of both biology and chemistry) and research specialty (on neurotransmitter systems) while satisfying expressed interest that Hope students were voicing.

“It was a long journey, but there were important landmarks along the way.”

“To be perfectly honest, back then a major wasn’t even the goal,” says Chase. “The first goal was to offer the neuroscience class here with a supporting lab to go with it. We got the grant from NSF (National Science Foundation) to create that lab and from there we weren’t sure yet where it would go.”

Student interest remained strong, and with the 2015 faculty additions of Griffin, associate professor of biology and psychology, and Dr. Andrew Gall, assistant professor of psychology, a new major in neuroscience made every sense to add to the list of Hope’s 80-plus majors, minors and pre-professional programs.

“It was a long journey, but there were important landmarks along the way,” says Chase. “Getting Gerald and Andy to Hope was really important, so was having dedicated neuroscience lab space (in the Schaap Science Center) and getting a grant from HHMI (Howard Hughes Medical Institute) which included support for the development of the neuroscience minor. All of that made going from a minor to a major at this time seem like the perfect fit.”

Neuroscience — the study of the brain and nervous system to better understand human behavior — naturally blends the academic worlds of biology, chemistry and psychology. At Hope though, it’s more than that. Students who major in neuroscience also must select from a list of classes in engineering, computer science, physics, mathematics and philosophy for a total of 63 to 67 credits. With such a breadth of requirements across several disciplines, the neuroscience major leans heavily into Hope’s liberal arts tradition.

“We spent a long time thinking about how we would design this major,” says Chase, who has served on the governing board of Faculty for Undergraduate Neuroscience and currently serves as vice president of the Kenneth H. Campbell Foundation for Neurological Research. “All of us were sitting there looking at other programs, and we wanted to be sure two things happened with ours. One, it had to fit well with national norms for neuroscience study and, two, it had to have a very unique Hope-College stamp on it.”

Neuroscience naturally blends the academic worlds of biology, chemistry and psychology. At Hope though, it’s more than that.

Signs that the new neuroscience major has the Hope College mark written all over it will be seen as neuroscience students become active in programs such as Memory and Music — helping patients with dementia augment memories by playing music from earlier decades. Hope’s Brain Days and Brain Awareness Week teaches elementary students about neuroscience fundamentals through a science fair.  Taking classes like Philosophy of Science or Medical Ethics will provide a holistic preparation that produces ethically-rooted scientists. Exploring phantom limb pain with Dr. Katharine Polasek in Hope’s engineering department, or discovering the biomarkers of apathy in patients with Alzheimer’s disease with Dr. Emilie Dykstra Goris in Hope’s nursing department is yet another way neuroscience “will have the kind of interesting overlaps that only Hope can provide,” 

Of course, research opportunities — another Hope trademark — will begin as early as students’ Introduction to Neuroscience course and continue through advanced neuroscience core courses as well. In the neuroscience capstone course, senior students will write an original grant proposal, conduct an original research study, and write a complete journal-style research manuscript.

While more than 50 students are enrolled in neuroscience introduction classes each semester, about 30 are currently either neuroscience composite majors or minors. With the addition of an official major now, Griffin sees more growth on the horizon, and he’s ready for making his leadership priorities ones of community- and future-building.

“My first big focus will be to create a neuroscience community amongst our students now that we have a major,” says Griffin who, in January 2019, was named an Emerging Scholar by Diverse: Issues in Higher Education. “In the past, our students who were (neuroscience) minors had been majors in the biology or chemistry or psychology or other departments. Now they’ll be in this new major and we’ll work on that. . .  We’re also open to expanding opportunities There’s a whole burgeoning field of neuro-economics, for example, which is the neuroscience of decision-making. That could be a great opportunity. Basically, we’ll keep looking at ways to help our neuroscience students use their knowledge for a greater good.”

Breaks Away: Graham Peaslee

sabbatical (n): a break from customary work to acquire new skills or knowledge, traditionally occurring every seventh year

Breaks Away: Sabbatical Stories of Hope
Each academic year, a number of Hope faculty take sabbatical leaves away from the college, submersing themselves for extended periods of time into their favored fields of inquiry. If viewed from above and all together, those fields would look like a calico landscape, so varied and colorful is the topography of their collective research, writing, and creative pursuits. Offering restoration and adventure both, sabbaticals are a bit like information and imagination transfusions. These breaks away from normal classroom and committee work give Hope academicians a boost to reinforce and revitalize their teaching and scholarship.

On a scale of sedentary to prolific, the yearlong break away of Dr. Graham Peaslee, the Elmer E. Hartgerink Professor of Chemistry and Environmental Science, can be best described as super-productive. If there was such a thing as barometric sabbatical pressure, Dr. Peaslee crushed it.

To wit:

  • He gave talks at 27 venues in nine U.S. states and Australia;
  • He crossed the Pacific Ocean four times in July alone, and his watch hasn’t been the same since;
  • He wrote three successful grant proposals to the Department of Energy, National Science Foundation (NSF), and the Australian government, collaborated on Hope’s successful Dow Foundation proposal, and has two more proposals still pending to the Department of Defense and the NSF;
  • He wrote three other grant proposals but received “thanks-but-no-thanks” replies;
  • He published five peer-reviewed papers during the year and submitted three more after classes started this fall; and,
  • He registered a patent with the United States Patent and Trademark Office.
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Dr. Graham Peaslee, Elmer E. Hartgerink Professor of Chemistry and Environmental Science

One last thing, but I’ll wait while you catch your breath…..

  • Dr. Peaslee co-founded a new company— along with Hope colleague, Dr. Peter Boumgarden, assistant professor of economics, and Hope alum, Evelyn Ritter ’15, a mechanical engineer — called University Market Partners (UMP) Analytical that tests for the presence of perfluorinated alkyl substances (PFASs) in consumer products. PFASs — human-made chemicals found in flame retardant, stain- and water-resistant materials such as carpet, furniture fabrics, textiles and outdoor clothing, cosmetics, fire-fighting foam and even the liner of microwave popcorn bags — are concerning for their long environmental lifetimes, bioaccumulation and toxicity, and thus their impact on human and animal life. Another NSF grant got UMP launched, and NSF featured UMP’s work on its website.

 

“Sabbatical is a time to see where you are and where you want to go,” says Dr. Peaslee, who obviously went to a lot of places in mileage and mind. “It’s a time to put your efforts into your passions.”

“When I stop to think about it, it really makes me angry. There are over 500 (PFASs) and only two have been voluntarily removed from the U.S. market,” he says firmly. “No one eats microwave popcorn in my household anymore.”

Since his passions are the environment and chemistry combined, UMP’s creation perfectly explains where Dr. Peaslee’s newest trek is going. His road is mapped by analytic and nuclear chemistry; his destination is science policy as much as science itself. Those microwave popcorn bags with PFASs? Denmark recently removed them from their grocery store shelves. Understandably, Dr. Peaslee would like to see PFASs removed from all food packaging materials in the U.S.

“When I stop to think out it, it really makes me angry. There are over 500 (PFASs) and only two have been voluntarily removed from the U.S. market,” he says firmly. “No one eats microwave popcorn in my household anymore.”

IMG_1627
Hope senior David Lunderberg, right, and Evelyn Ritter, a UMP Analytical co-founder, at work in Dr. Peaslee’s lab.

Most Saturdays — and any other day of the week, really — Dr. Peaslee can be found with a team of students conducting PFAS testing using the Pelletron particle accelerator, a piece of pricey equipment he acquired with an NSF grant in 2004, in his lab on Hope’s campus. The company’s workers take an existing yet refined nuclear process that Dr. Peaslee and Dr. Paul DeYoung, the Kenneth G. Herrick Professor of Physics, discovered about a year ago and tests for PFASs in minutes when once the testing required days. While paying back colleges and universities like Hope for their accelerator’s use, and giving Hope students experience and employment to boot, UMP is just as importantly able to provide a low-cost PFAS screening method for non-profit groups such as The National Resource Defense Council, the Environmental Defense Fund, and the Environmental Working Group. It’s a win-win-win for Hope, the environment and humans.

Of course, Dr. Peaslee’s priority remains teaching and researching at Hope while he runs UMP with his partners. Follow him on Twitter @gfpeaslee. You’ll find his feed full of scientific engagement with students and colleagues, from watershed experiences to cyclotron experiments.

Would you expect anything else from a super-productive professor?

Dr. Graham Peaslee is the Elmer E. Hartgerink Professor of Chemistry and Environmental Science in the Chemistry and Biochemistry Department at Hope College.

Breaks Away: Tom Bultman

sabbatical (n): a break from customary work to acquire new skills or knowledge, traditionally occurring every seventh year

Breaks Away: Sabbatical Stories of Hope
Each academic year, a number of Hope faculty take sabbatical leaves away from the college, submersing themselves for extended periods of time into their favored fields of inquiry. If viewed from above and all together, those fields would look like a calico landscape, so varied and colorful is the topography of their collective research, writing, and creative pursuits. Offering restoration and adventure both, sabbaticals are a bit like information and imagination transfusions. These breaks away from normal classroom and committee work give Hope academicians a boost to reinforce and revitalize their teaching and scholarship.

Sheep in New Zealand have a friend in Dr. Tom Bultman. And Dr. Bultman, professor of biology, was happy to oblige the massive, wooly industry that is valuable in a country where sheep outnumber humans by about 10-to-1.

TomBultman
Dr. Tom Bultman, professor of biology at Hope College

Funded by a National Science Foundation grant and headquartered at AgResearch just outside of Christchurch, Dr. Bultman spent three months in the spring of 2015 investigating the growth and effects of endophytic fungus inside perennial ryegrass, the mainly foraged food source found in New Zealand paddocks. His research findings may eventually ensure that New Zealand’s ovine population (and America’s too) can eat their meals toxin-free.

“Endophytic fungus can produce chemicals in the grasses that can be toxic,” explains Dr. Bultman, who collaborated with six other New Zealand scientists, as well as Hope graduate Kelly Krueger ’14, on the project. “So it makes sense that ridding the grasses of those fungi and possible toxins is important to farmers in New Zealand and the U.S. because the effects of the fungi are pronounced in these two part of the world.”

Dr. Bultman and associates also looked at the alkaloid levels — the presences of nitrogenous compounds — in damaged grass and the insect impact on that grass as well. In other words, when ryegrass is walked on by sheep hooves or torn by the sheep’s teeth, what alkaloid, if any, would be produced and how would insects respond to it?

“We found that one variety of fungus actually produced reduced alkaloids in damaged grass, probably due to the sheep’s saliva,” Dr. Bultman says.

So in layman’s terms, sheep spit is actually a good thing.

“I’m a pretty simple guy, I admit,” he replies when asked what he appreciated most about his break away, “so sabbaticals are the chance to simplify, to focus on one thing for a big block of time. This research is new and novel, and I can’t wait to write it up.”

With most of his findings in hand, Dr. Bultman will now begin to author his work for publication in scholarly journals such as PLOS Biology. In fact, he’s anxious to do so.

“I’m a pretty simple guy, I admit,” he replies when asked what he appreciated most about his break away, “so sabbaticals are the chance to simplify, to focus on one thing for a big block of time. This research is new and novel, and I can’t wait to write it up.”

Dr. Tom Bultman is a professor in the Biology Department at Hope College.