Faculty Focus: A Leader in Neuroscience
As the newly-elected executive director of Nu Rho Psi, the national honor society in neuroscience, Professor Michael Kerchner is helping colleges across the country support scientific research in this growing field.
Mike Kerchner, associate professor of psychology, has always operated under the premise that undergraduate research should be fun. In fact, in 2005-06, he was the president of FUN, a national organization also known as Faculty for Undergraduate Neuroscience. The professor with a penchant for bad puns now has been tapped as executive director of the Nu Rho Psi – the national honor society in neuroscience.
Kerchner succeeds Andrew Mickley, a professor of Baldwin-Wallace University in Ohio, who has served as executive director of Nu Rho Psi since its inception. The organization has been instrumental in establishing local chapters on college campuses around the country and awarding grants to support undergraduate research projects. Today, Nu Rho Psi supports 70 chapters across the United States, at institutions ranging from small liberal arts colleges to large public universities.
“I recognize the tremendous role that Andrew played in helping to establish and successfully shepherd this new honor society through the first ten years,” says Kerchner. “It’s both an honor and a charge that will require me to fill some pretty big shoes, literally and figuratively. Andrew wears a size 13.”
Twenty years ago, when the field of behavioral neuroscience was gaining interest among undergraduates, Washington College students were among the select few who could explore how brain mechanisms affected human and animal behaviors. The impetus? The Department of Psychology’s existing strengths in cognitive sciences, its growing commitment to undergraduate research, and Kerchner’s own scholarly interest in neuroscience and hormonal regulation of behaviors.
At the time, Washington College was the only small liberal arts college in Maryland to offer a concentration in behavioral neuroscience, a demanding track that appealed to the best and brightest. Kerchner’s students have gone on to some of the nation’s top graduate programs and medical schools. To name a few: Nikki Scutella Gamble ’10 is working with veterans with traumatic brain injuries at Walter Reed National Military Hospital, Marissa Babnew ’10 and Meghan Moxley ’11 are both practicing medicine, and Andrew Waters ’05 is a cardiologist at the University of Kansas Medical Center. Students mentored by other faculty who advise BN students can boast of similar outcomes among many of their students.
At the Society for Neuroscience meeting in November, Kerchner caught up with four former students who were presenting: Rebecca Sappington ’00, Ph.D., a faculty member at Vanderbilt University, Caitlin Orsini ’07, a post-doctoral fellow at Florida State University, Courtney Burton ’12, a graduate student at University of Georgia, and Isabelle Derera ’12, a graduate student at University of Kentucky. Allison Halt ’16 and D.J. Bradshaw ’16 are two of the most recent BN graduates who have commenced their graduate studies in neuroscience at the University of Missouri and the Uniform Services University of Health Sciences, respectively.
“We’ve had a very successful concentration in behavioral neuroscience since 1996,” notes Kerchner, who lends his expertise at other colleges as a program reviewer. “In a recent curricular assessment, Washington College identified majors that could bolster our distinctiveness among our peers. Neuroscience was among them, so I am hopeful that we’ll consider establishing neuroscience as a major in the not-too-distant future.”
His association with Nu Rho Psi will be beneficial in that regard. “Through my work with this group, I will be able to learn more about how we can strengthen the neuroscience program here at Washington College, and provide advice to our students as they look for post-graduate research and educational opportunities. As executive director of Nu Rho Psi, I will be in regular contact with faculty and students at successful and highly-regarded neuroscience programs. That’s a great resource to have.”
Kerchner, who currently serves as the grants coordinator for the College’s Division of Natural and Quantitative Sciences is also eager to help Nu Rho Psi grow—in size and in revenue.
“At colleges and universities around the country, there’s great Interest in creating new majors in the neurosciences,” he says. “We’re anticipating a robust number of Nu Rho Psi chapter applications over the next three years, and a dramatic increase in the numbers and strength of the organization. A big part of my job will be to facilitate fundraising efforts to support this growth.”