During her senior year, the Goldwater Scholarship propelled her to the forefront of neuroscience research possibilities on the horizon

When 2015 Goldwater Scholar Jenni Isaac ’16 applied for a neuroscience research job in a gap year fresh out of college, her Davidson adviser soon got a phone call and pointed question from a skeptical principal investigator: Can she really do everything it says she can do on her resume?

“Yes,” Julio Ramirez replied without hesitation. She’d won a Goldwater Scholarship, hadn’t she?

Isaac put many of the skills that were on her resume to work in that Duke University lab: brain imaging, microinjections of neurotoxins, perfusion for fixing, stains, dyes, craniotomies, in vivo electrodes and histology, to name a few. She had honed those skills during her thesis research at Davidson, as she explored in the lab whether the brain can continue to support memory when certain neural pathways are eliminated.

That question, with its clear implications for ongoing Alzheimer’s research as well as the burgeoning field of neuroplasticity research overall, is still in her own brain as Isaac has embarked on an M.D./Ph.D. track at Emory School of Medicine.

She is still in close touch with Ramirez, the R. Stuart Dickson Professor and Chair of Psychology, who was awarded the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring by President Barack Obama and who, more recently, was awarded a CUR-Goldwater Scholar Faculty Mentor award jointly by the Council on Undergraduate Research and the Goldwater Foundation. Ramirez was an early proponent of an emerging concept in the 1970s called “neuroplasticity,” which is now accepted as a basic tenet of neuroscience.

Isaac met Ramirez on campus for the first time when she visited as a prospective Division I soccer recruit from Connecticut. She had done a project in high school on the neuroscience of athletic and musical performance.

Studying science on a small liberal arts campus was the perfect fit for how Isaac’s own curious mind worked.

“What I loved the most is that I was in a diversity of classes,” she said. “It challenges you to develop the ability to articulate what you are learning. A lot of the people who go into the sciences don’t get that kind of education.”

She also got exposure to graduate-level research experience with Ramirez and others, and to extraordinary lectures like one she recalls by a Nobel Prize-winning fluorescent-protein scientist, Dr. Martin Chalfie.

During her senior year, the Goldwater Scholarship propelled her to the forefront of neuroscience research possibilities on the horizon. She began her first year of the eight-year program at Emory in 2017.

“I definitely want to continue on Alzheimer’s/memory research,” she said. “You get in there and you’re seeing the actual substance of what makes us who we are.”