Award Recognizes Ramirez's Leadership in Undergraduate Research
Davidson College senior Jennie Hillmann recalls her first, vivid impression of Julio Ramirez, a psychology professor recently named as one of two winners of a national award from the Council on Undergraduate Research (CUR).
On the first day of Hillman's introductory neuroscience class with Ramirez, which proved to be the initial stepping stone for her three years of laboratory research with him, Ramirez showed a film of actor Christopher Reeve. "This is why we work on neuroscience," Ramirez told the class as they watched an account of Reeve's tumble from a horse into a life of paralysis. "This is what we're working to understand and help."
Hillmann said, "It was obvious from the beginning that he thinks this is a noble cause."
Ramirez, a 13-year faculty member at Davidson who holds the college's first R. Stuart Dickson Professorship, has received one of the two first-ever CUR Fellows Awards. The award recognizes his success in developing an undergraduate research lab to investigate recovery of function after central nervous system injury, with an emphasis on recovery from Alzheimer's disease. The CUR's awardees have outstanding records of establishing laboratory programs, obtaining funding for their work and for their students, and publishing research findings in conjunction with undergraduate coauthors.
The award serves as another validation of the new pedagogy in science instruction at Davidson, a combination of teaching and research that Ramirez calls "terching." In addition to classroom instruction and traditional lab exercises, many students assist professors with authentic research projects. It establishes a new relationship between students and professors as they work cooperatively to uncover new knowledge. Ramirez believes this type of works instills in students the three "C's"- critical thinking, creative thinking, and compassionate thinking.
It also gives them experience at the undergraduate level that proves valuable in applying for graduate schools, jobs, and grants of their own. This year alone, the National Science Foundation gave biology research awards to a current Davidson senior, Will White, and a recent graduate, Ken Howard.
Since his arrival at Davidson in 1986, Ramirez has mentored a total of 85 undergraduate students and published 19 research papers-nine with undergraduate coauthors. His research and collaborative educational efforts with other Davidson faculty have received more than $2-million in grants to support biomedical research and education at Davidson from the National Institutes of Health, National Science Foundation, Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and the Pew Charitable Trusts. In 1989, Ramirez was named North Carolina Professor of the Year and also was honored as a National Gold Medal Professor of the Year.
During the first 10 years of his research, Ramirez aimed at discovering if acceleration of neuronal "sprouting" between nerve cells in the hippocampus could promote recovery of memory function in rats after brain damage. The proof of that hypothesis, was published in papers co-authored by several students in two prestigious journals-a 1996 edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and a 1999 edition of the Journal of Neuroscience.
Ramirez commented, "I often get more pleasure in the success of my student researchers than in the research itself... much like a parent, I suppose!"
He has watched with pride as his undergraduate researchers have gone on from Davidson to earn Ph.D.s and M.D.s in neuroscience and related fields. But he also gains satisfaction from being part of an army of researchers worldwide who have learned more about workings of the central nervous system in the past two decades than in all of previous history. "It's a wonderfully vibrant area in which to work," Ramirez said. "The great part about science is that every answer you discover also reveals a whole new set of questions to pursue."
He and his current student researchers are working through a grant from the National Science Foundation and a private biotech firm to experiment on pharmacological interventions to accelerate sprouting. Sophomore Reggie McKoy is one of eight students who currently spends at least 10 hours per week in Ramirez's lab. McKoy said, "I feel like I'm learning a lot more in here than in lectures."
His classmate, Stephanie Courchesne, added, "This is the first time I've ever done original research. It's not like we're practicing something, we're actually doing it. That's sort of terrifying, but incredible at the same time!"
The lab is busy every weekday, and often on weekends. Two recent graduates, Charlotte White and Andy Preston, work on the project full-time and serve as the chief lab technicians, providing the ongoing direction for current students.
Ramirez cultivates an atmosphere of camaraderie in the lab, encouraging students to play music, joking with them when he drops by, urging them to go out together on social occasions, and inviting them to dinner at his house. It's a laid-back atmosphere, but the science is strictly rigorous. "He has really high expectations of students and pushes us hard," said Hillmann. "But we have a lot of fun together."
Students learn lab techniques and assume responsibility that most young scientists don't encounter before graduate school. Hillman, whose independent study project on the electrophysiology of lesion-induced regeneration will probably be published in a scientific journal, said, "In talking with people in Ph.D. programs, I hear that I'm doing the same type of work they've only now begun to do, and that they never had these opportunities as undergraduates. Most undergraduates can only hope to be a professor's assistant, but in my thesis work with Dr. Ramirez I've developed my own project and am responsible for the experimentation and analysis."
The payoff for Ramirez is seeing students get excited about the scientific process, and achieve success in their pursuit of further education in the field. McKoy wants to do research at the National Institute of Health, then enter medical school. Hillman wants to follow Ramirez's career footsteps closely, earning her Ph.D. and then "terching" at an undergraduate college. Courchesne said simply, "I want to do research for the rest of my life."
The CUR will present its awards to Ramirez and the other winner, Mary Allen, chair of the biology department at Wellesley College, at the Eighth National CUR Conference on June 22. Over the past 25 years CUR has championed collaborative research among undergraduates and their faculty mentors. CUR conferences, publications, and mentoring activities help faculty members establish and sustain research programs at primarily undergraduate institutions nationwide.