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AU Launches New Neuroscience Department Distinguished Professor Terry Davidson will chair department

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Diagram of regions of the brain

Neuroscience, the study of the structure and function of the human brain and nervous system, is one of the most exciting fields of the twenty-first century. Its body of research is advancing at a rapid pace, making extraordinary progress on a wide variety of issues with the potential to transform human health, performance, and quality of life.

This summer, American University has launched a new cutting-edge Department of Neuroscience under the leadership of Terry Davidson, who was named Distinguished Professor of Neuroscience by AU’s Board of Trustees this spring. The department’s new home will be in the Hall of Science, which will open this fall.

The new department will include a BS in neuroscience. Graduate students of neuroscience faculty can participate in its multidisciplinary PhD program in Behavior, Cognition, and Neuroscience (BCaN). The department will work closely with AU’s Center for Behavioral Neuroscience, which will become one of two new university-wide centers.  

Professor Catherine Stoodley, formerly of the Department of Psychology, will continue as Director of the undergraduate degree, and Professor Mark Laubach, formerly of the Department of Biology, will continue as Director of the BCaN PhD program. Professors Anthony Riley and Colin Saldanha, previously in the Departments of Psychology and Biology respectively, will also hold appointments in the new department.

“This concentration of faculty strength and reputation, combined with the opening of the new state-of-the-art Hall of Science, will make AU more visible to the national and international scientific community and will dramatically enhance AU’s ability to recruit top senior neuroscientists and the most promising junior neuroscience researchers to our faculty,” says Davidson. “In turn, this will facilitate the advancement of our already strong undergraduate and graduate neuroscience academic programs by increasing flexibility in our course offerings and staffing.”

Zone of Distinction

Davidson says that the Department of Neuroscience faculty are dedicated to increasing basic knowledge of the brain and nervous system with the goal of improving our understanding of mental, behavioral, and neurodevelopmental functioning.

“By bringing together scientists with strong research programs in this discipline, the department is establishing a zone of distinction that immediately makes AU much more competitive in neuroscience with other institutions, both local and national,” he explains. “The first faculty members with appointments to the Department of Neuroscience have been among the most productive scientists at AU.”

Stoodley is an esteemed Fellow of the Association for Psychological Science in recognition of her research on processes in the human brain that underlie cognition, language and memory. Laubach is a neuroscientist whose research on the brain mechanisms responsible for decision-making and goal-directed behavior has been highly influential. Saldanha, well-known for his research in neuroendocrinology, is returning to AU this fall to join the faculty of the Department of Neuroscience after serving for the past two years as program director in the National Science Foundation’s Neural Systems Cluster of the Division of Integrative Organismal Systems, Biological Sciences Directorate. And with over 225 peer-reviewed publications, Riley is internationally known for his scholarly research on the brain mechanisms that underlie drug abuse and addiction.

Davidson’s groundbreaking research focuses on the effects of a high-fat, high-sugar Western diet on the brain’s hippocampus, which is important for memory, learning, and decision-making.

This group of primary appointees to the faculty of the Department of Neuroscience are recipients of several of AU’s highest university-wide faculty awards, including the Morton Bender Prize; the Award for Outstanding Research, Scholarship, Creative Activity, and Other Professional Contributions; the Award for Outstanding Contribution to Fostering Collaborative Scholarship; and AU’s highest honor, the Scholar/Teacher of the Year Award (two recipients).  

In addition, Davidson points out, the last two recipients of AU’s award for Outstanding Scholarship at the Graduate Level, the university’s top award for graduate students, received their degrees from BCaN under the mentorship of faculty who are now members of the new Department of Neuroscience.

Davidson says he’s excited that the new department will improve the university’s ability to attract, train and retain both undergraduate and graduate neuroscience students—and enhance AU’s competitiveness for NIH pre-doctoral and post-doctoral training grants.

“Neuroscience at AU has come a long way over the past decade,” he says. “The establishment of an independent Department of Neuroscience provides the foundation for still greater success and will help fulfill the ambitious goals of the university’s strategic plan.”

The Student Experience

Being part of a dedicated department will give neuroscience students more opportunities to take advantage of new classes, scholarships, honors, and awards.

“As both a neuroscience program alumna and current BCaN PhD student, I'm really excited about the new Neuroscience Department because neuroscience will now have the recognition it deserves on campus,” says Samantha White.

“It's been an amazing experience watching the program grow into a full department, and it feels great to know the current students at the undergraduate and graduate level have a very clear place to go when looking for guidance about neuroscience at AU. I’m grateful to the faculty and staff who worked so hard to make this happen.”