Class of 2014: Lives of Meaning and Purpose
Research helps neuroscience student reach graduate school
It doesn’t take much to get started on independent research at Providence College. You just need to send the right email.
As a freshman, Ryan Post ’14 (North Attleboro, Mass.) contacted Dr. Christopher M. Bloom, associate professor of psychology, to find out whether there were any research opportunities in his lab.
Three years later, the biology and psychology double major is the lab manager and an author of three research papers published in scientific journals. Now, Post is headed to Cornell University to pursue a doctorate in neuroscience.
Post said his favorite part of his PC experience was the access to researchers like Bloom. Because the College is a primarily undergraduate institution, he did not have to compete with doctoral students or postdoctoral scholars for lab jobs or faculty mentors like Bloom.
“Virtually every biology and psychology professor has a research lab,” Post said. “That access has been instrumental to my training and future.”
Neuroscience research just an email away
Post, a member of the inaugural class of PC’s neuroscience certificate program, emailed Bloom in spring 2011 because he was one of its faculty leaders.
Bloom invited him to join the lab at the start of his sophomore year. Working with Bloom, Post and other students created animal models for human phobia and human non-suicidal self-injury — i.e., deliberate cutting or burning. Recently, they started investigating the roots of self-injury by studying how early life stress affects pain sensitivity in rats.
“We want to look at how it really develops,” he said. “We thought it would be interesting to see how stressing the animal in juvenility, when the brain is still developing, could have long-lasting effects on how the animal perceives pain and how anxious it is.”
Post said he worked with fellow student researchers to develop the experimental method to approach the last question.
Bloom “really prompted us with the problem, and the three of us developed a project to explore that,” Post said. “From there, it falls into place — you collect data, analyze data, write about it.”
The professor pointed out how unusual it was for a student to have one published research paper before graduate school, much less three. At crunch times, Post would spend as much as eight to 10 hours a week in the lab.
Post is “bright but also humble and hardworking,” said Bloom. “You hope to get two of those three. You rarely get three in one student.”
At the Academic Awards Ceremony during Commencement Weekend, Post will receive the Rev. Charles V. Reichart, O.P. Award for students who exemplify dedication to the biological sciences.
Next year, Post will enroll in Cornell’s doctoral program in neurobiology and behavior.
“It combines the hard neurobiology of everything from sensation to clinical disorders, to observing the natural behavior of animals,” he said. “It’s an interesting interplay between two areas that are pretty much separate in other universities.”
In the future, Post said he would like to become a professor at a place like PC, “a place where I’d be able to both teach and do research,” he said.
Liberal arts complements neuroscience
PC is a unique place to study neuroscience, Post said. All students at the College take Development of Western Civilization, a series of courses exploring human history through literature, philosophy, theology, and art.
“The liberal arts approach that a place like PC gives you really helps you understand human problems on a grander scale,” he said. “You really end up thinking about things on a deeper level when you have that Civ background.”
“Going all the way back to the classics, people have always written about how the brain works — what it means to be human, what differentiates humans from lower life forms,” Post said. “It usually comes down to the brain and how we use it.
“I really like how neuroscience allows you to explore how the brain functions,” he said. “It’s one of the few concrete tools we have to understand consciousness, really.”
Outside the lab, Post tutored students in courses such as Organic Chemistry and Research Design and Statistical Analysis. He also traveled to Kittaning, Pa., just outside Pittsburgh, with a PC team working on a Habitat for Humanity house over spring break.
In addition, Post served as a retreat leader twice — for the Lighthouse retreat for sophomores, and the Connections retreat for freshmen. He described Campus Ministry’s retreats as “one of the greatest things that happen at PC.” He went on the Lighthouse retreat himself and wanted to help others share a similar experience.
“They just kind of clarify the rest of college,” Post said. Without time for reflection, “people get caught up in the little things.”
Post said he had a holistic experience at PC. As a scientist, he learned how to design experiments to test hypotheses. He added that he learned how to be an adult. At PC, “you really kind of learn how to be a learner and a leader at the same time,” he said.
— Liz F. Kay