President Berger-Sweeney Reflects on Neuroscience



After dedicating decades of her life to researching Rett Syndrome, President Joanne Berger-Sweeney made an unusual switch approximately two years ago to become a full-time college administrator. For researchers, their greatest passion is always their work, so to suddenly give this up for a ‘desk job’ seemed a bit out of the blue for Berger-Sweeney. But then again, being a college president is not your typical  nine-to-five position. Moreover, would it require any less passion for the job than that of a seasoned researcher?

Initially, I was a bit perplexed as a freshman when it was announced that a neuroscientist would be taking the helm. Trinity College is a small liberal arts institution, which has “one of the strongest neuroscience programs,” but at its core, is humanities-centered. What makes a scientist such a good fit for the job?

“Complexity,” Berger-Sweeney told the Tripod. Scientists deal in complex facts, from which interpretations must accurately be made. In a small college setting, pockets of deeply-rooted constituencies  abound. 

“My highest highs and lowest lows were in the same day,” said Berger-Sweeney. It can be a complex situation getting the “many different constituencies to be on board with the same idea.” Inevitably, “some love it, and some hate it.” Yet, it is her job to make it work. Fortunately, what drew Berger-Sweeney to neuroscience all those years ago is the same principle she operates on today: “complexity.” If anything, it has been the complexity of the job that has kept her going.

“I miss research,” she said, “but the scientific world is not static.” While she strongly affirmed being a school administrator was never in the cards, she reluctantly gave up a thriving career in research when she came to Trinity. It’s hard enough to “stay current” as a researcher, let alone while running a school.  It is not enough to do “a day here” of research or “half -days”- it is a full time job. While Berger-Sweeney concedes  that she “wakes up sometimes and misses it,” she is planning to join committees and attend conferences to say current within the neuroscience field.

Most recently, the school hosted the Brain Event, an all day symposium to help celebrate 25 Years of Neuroscience at Trinity. Hundreds of students, faculty, and alums showed up to help celebrate the progress  made not only as a department, but also the many advancements Trinity graduates have contributed to the scientific community. For Berger-Sweeney, and many others at the event, research “is a passion that doesn’t go away.”

Having a passion to discover is a value instilled in neuroscience students very early on in their education. While many look to larger research institutions and major universities as bastions for scientific knowledge, seldom do undergraduates ever get the chance to contribute, let alone, witness their professors’ research. At Trinity, research is highly encouraged; undergraduates leave Trinity published, and with life-long passions for experimentation and scientific questioning.

Reflecting back on an idea shared during a scientific symposium from her inauguration, Berger-Sweeney was struck by the notion that scientists create, while humanists critique. The disciplines are “different, but not better,” and offer a range of prospectives to students. At the heart of the neuroscience program is the breadth requirement. It ensures that every Trinity neuroscience student graduates have taken courses across a host of departments, each bringing a different interpretation to not only how the brain functions, but also how we derive our essence of being.

There is no greater manifestation of our ‘inter-disciplinary’ approach to neuroscience than out new STEAM building.  Targeting science, technology, engineering, art, and mathematics, the notion of the STEAM environment is to not only engage students in the fields of disciplines, but also to expose them to a range of artistic expressions.

Like many students matriculating into college with their eye on a science major, Berger-Sweeney knew being a doctor was not for her – she “likes healthy people.” But regardless of attending medical school or not, the goal of any good science program is to prepare students. When I asked her to gaze 25 years into the future and predict what changes would be made, she offered this: students need to be prepared for life after Trinity and the constant adaptation to the ever changing needs of the real world.

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