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Recognition of His Student Is Proudest Honor for Davidson Mentor

November 27, 2001
Contact: Bill Giduz 704/894-2244 or bigiduz@davidson.edu

Neuroscientists
Davidson neuroscientists: Jennifer Caldwell '01 and professor Julio Ramirez.

Davidson neuroscientist Julio J. Ramirez was honored with a lifetime achievement award at the recent annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience. "He is definitely the heavy hitter in undergraduate neuroscience," commented Eric Wiertelak, professor of neuroscience at Macalester College and president of Faculty for Undergraduate Neuroscience (FUN), the organization that presented Ramirez with its inaugural Career Achievement Award. Ramirez helped found FUN in 1991, served as its president, and has been instrumental in developing its relationship with the Society for Neuroscience and other professional organizations. FUN, which has about 400 members, meets annually in conjunction with the Society for Neuroscience, and serves as the "voice" of undergraduate research in its proceedings.

Ramirez, R. Stuart Dickson Professor of Psychology at Davidson, said he was humbled by the honor, which came as a complete surprise. He received a standing ovation from more than 100 of his peers attending the FUN banquet during which the award was presented.

But Ramirez was even more proud that one of his student researchers, Jennifer Caldwell, had received a Student Travel Award from FUN to attend the meeting and report on research she conducted at Davidson.

"It's like a father's pride in his children," said Ramirez, who has mentored dozens of student researchers and received several national accolades in recent years for promoting undergraduate study of neuroscience. Last year the Council on Undergraduate Research named him as one of its first two recipients of a national Fellows Award for success in involving undergraduates in his research on recovery of function following brain injury.

Ramirez deflected the credit from himself, explaining, "What we do here is a team effort, and the ultimate goal is to prepare students for fulfilling and meaningful careers in this important field. Jennifer's work has been outstanding, and it's rewarding to see that others recognize that as well."

Caldwell is a valuable member of the Ramirez research team. She graduated from Davidson last May with a major in neuroscience through Davidson's Center for Interdisciplinary Studies, and has been employed this year as manager of the neuroscience lab. There are currently five student researchers involved in research, but there have been as many as ten during the summers in the 15 years that Ramirez has taught at Davidson. Caldwell competed for the FUN Student Travel Award on the basis of research she conducted for her senior thesis.

The research involves using a virus that makes a growth protein to test the brain's response to injury in the hippocampus, the area responsible for learning and memory. The virus was injected into the brains of rats and caused brain cells to make nerve growth factor, which then enhances the healing of injured brain tissue.

"It's transforming the brain cells into tiny pharmaceutical factories," said Ramirez. "The hippocampal injury mimics part of Alzheimer's disease, so the research may contribute to an eventual cure."

Caldwell and seven other undergraduates from around the nation who received the travel awards attended the meeting in San Diego and presented their research. She termed the occasion "a debutante ball for young scientists" because of the opportunity to meet established researchers and teachers from the best colleges and universities in the country. More than 28,000 neuroscientists from around the world attended the meeting. She plans to pursue a Ph.D. in neuroscience, and was able to learn a great deal about programs she might want to pursue. Likewise, faculty members who might consider her for their programs were able to learn more about her involvement in research.

Wiertelak, the FUN president, said FUN has been working to establish the Career Achievement Award for many years as its premier honor. He said Ramirez was the executive committee's logical choice as the first recipient. "He's the reason we exist, and his efforts to get us involved with groups like the Society for Neuroscience, Project Kaleidoscope, and the Council for Undergraduate Research has propelled us in our mission. He has been a ceaseless advocate for undergraduate neuroscience for the past decade."

Davidson is a highly selective independent liberal arts college for 1,600 students. Since its establishment in 1837, the college has graduated 23 Rhodes Scholars and is consistently ranked among the top liberal arts colleges in the country by U.S. News and World Report magazine. Davidson is currently engaged in "Let Learning Be Cherished," a $250 million campaign in support of student financial assistance, academic resources, and community life.

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