Lycoming College Summer Magazine 2013 - page 6

Mary Morrison, Ph.D.
Assistant professor
of biology
When did you first become
interested in science?
The first time I remember being
drawn to science as a dynamic process,
rather than as a list of facts or a series of
predetermined instructions, was during
a middle school project on archaeology.
Mr. Sugamele pushed all the desks to
the outside of the room, and for about
a week we students had to conduct a
“dig” to explore his manmade reduced-
scale archaeological site. I have to thank
him for opening up a whole new world
of career possibilities, and making me
realize that people with passion can
discover new things that go way beyond
what’s written in textbooks.
What has been your most
rewarding project or
accomplishment at Lycoming?
I’m proud of the new biology
department curriculum, with its multiple-
track system that gives our students
more flexibility to prepare for graduate
and medical school. I’m proud of the
developmental neuroscience research
group I’ve created here, with alumni
who have gone on to training in clinical
neurology, basic neuroscience research,
veterinary school, dental school and
medical technology positions. And
I’m especially proud of the new
interdisciplinary neuroscience minor, a
collaborative effort between the biology,
psychology, sociology and philosophy
departments, which will
launch in fall 2013.
What do you enjoy most about
teaching biology?
I love all of the “a ha” moments.
Working with undergraduate students is
wonderful. Most of what they are learning
is new and exciting to them. Seeing their
excitement when they make connections
between concepts they’ve learned in
different classes, or when they find
bridges between the primary scientific
literature and what they are discovering in
the lab with their own hands, is priceless.
What are you currently
working on?
My current project is bringing the
latest neuroscience research on learning
into daily practice, for all of my courses.
It’s not enough to present information –
real education involves giving students
a chance to practice and challenge what
they think they’ve learned, to go right
up to the edge of our current state of
knowledge and ask what’s next and what
we need to do to go further.
In the research lab, we are finishing
up some work on the development of
Purkinje neurons in the cerebellum – the
wrinkly part at the back of our brain
that coordinates motion and balance.
The function of these Purkinje neurons
depends heavily on their structure. They
have highly-branched extensions called
dendrites that collect information about
body position in space and time. When
these dendrites don’t develop properly, or
when they begin to degenerate, they cause
cerebellar ataxias – lack of coordination
of movement, including loss of the
ability to read. My research group’s goal
is to understand the development and
degeneration of these Purkinje neuron
dendrites, so that maybe someday we’ll be
able to stop degeneration, or even trigger
restoration of dendrites that have become
As the co-coordinator of the
new neuroscience minor, why
do you believe this growing
field is so important?
Neuroscience is a growing field
worldwide. We live in an era of
unprecedented access to the brain, thanks
to technological advances in microscopic
imaging and genetic engineering. For
students headed for health professions, a
broad-based knowledge of neuroscience
will help them to diagnose, treat and
motivate their clients. Particularly for
premedical students, the new neuroscience
minor will help them to prepare for the
new version of the Medical College
Admissions Test (MCAT) that will be
administered starting in 2015.
About Morrison
Morrison earned a bachelor’s degree
in molecular biology from Princeton
University in 1986 and a Ph.D. in
microbiology from Columbia University
in 1993, where she also was a postdoctoral
fellow in neuroscience. Morrison
has studied the development of the
cerebellum, a brain region responsible for
balance and coordination of motion, and
has supervised numerous students doing
independent studies and honors projects
involving projects relating to brain
is a growing field
We live in an era
of unprecedented
access to the brain,
thanks to technological
advances in microscopic
imaging and genetic
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