Called to Be: Learning & Discovery

Title:The curious brain

Author: Lauren Wolkoff
Date Published: June 27, 2023

Interdisciplinary solutions for the complex problems of neuroscience

From the time he was a young boy, fascinated with dinosaurs and his rock collection, Zac Colon (G’21) always felt drawn to the sciences. He liked understanding how organisms and systems worked—at one point even informing his parents he wanted to autopsy a dead squirrel.

As his scientific curiosity matured, Colon’s interests evolved. Upon graduating college with a degree in microbiology, he began working in a food pathology lab at the Institute for Environmental Health. Then Colon’s father, a retired Navy SEAL, was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. This event sparked Colon’s interest in studying traumatic brain injury (TBI)—first as a volunteer in a rehabilitation center for veterans who had suffered head, neck, and spinal injuries, then going on to complete his master’s in integrative neuroscience at Georgetown.

Colon’s winding scientific journey ultimately led him to where he is today: a Ph.D. candidate in  Georgetown’s Interdisciplinary Program in Neuroscience (IPN).

For Colon, the appeal of the program is baked into the name: interdisciplinary. The IPN offers the ability to see neuroscience through the lens of multiple disciplines, not only allowing for the possibility of students broadening or shifting their focus, but actively facilitating it.

It was this spirit—the ethos of curiosity and exploration—that sealed the deal for Colon.

“Georgetown felt different in that I wasn’t being asked to choose my focus and my mentor right at the start. They wanted us to learn about other disciplines, and about different lab cultures, before settling down,” Colon says. “It has always felt that they wanted to make sure I had a well-rounded experience. That was the difference that appealed to me most.” Colon ended up changing his focus from studying TBI to exploring the interaction between neurons and the peripheral immune system—or how the brain directs immune response throughout the body. This was in part due to a positive experience he had during his first year in the lab of Kathleen Maguire-Zeiss, professor and chair of the department of neuroscience, who became his mentor.

“I realized the importance of the culture of a lab—the people you are working with matter as much as what you’re studying,” Colon says. 

IPN Ph.D. candidate Zac Colon (G’21) works with his Kathy Maguire-Zeiss, Ph.D., professor and chair of the department of neurology.
IPN Ph.D. candidate Zac Colon (G’21) works with his Kathy Maguire-Zeiss, Ph.D., professor and chair of the department of neuroscience.

Neurons don’t fire in isolation

It may seem contradictory that what is fundamentally a neuroscience doctoral program does not reside in the neuroscience department.

In fact, the program is in effect a free-standing island boasting more than 50 faculty members representing 11 departments across Georgetown: neuroscience; pharmacology & physiology; biochemistry; neurology; pediatrics; ophthalmology; psychology; oncology; biology; nephrology & hypertension; and physics.

This model—one that actively resists boundaries or classification—has stood the test of time. When the program was started nearly 30 years ago, in 1994, Georgetown’s neuroscience department didn’t yet exist.

The IPN’s founding director Karen Gale, who died in 2014, identified a need and an opportunity—to tap into the wealth of expertise in neuroscience that lived across Georgetown University Medical Center and the. College of Arts and Sciences and fashion it into a new kind of doctoral program. Beyond shaping the IPN into a world-class training program, Gale set out to cultivate a thriving neuroscience community at Georgetown.

IPN Director Ashley VanMeter says Gale’s vision for the neurosciences at Georgetown has endured, and is now part of the program’s DNA.

“The word interdisciplinary is not just a fancy title—it speaks to how our program operates and how it has been designed from the very beginning,” says VanMeter, a professor in the Department of Neurology who also directs Georgetown’s Center for Functional and Molecular Imaging. “Neuroscience itself is inherently interdisciplinary. By not being tied to any one department, we have the freedom and flexibility to draw on the expertise from across the university.”

A student interested in studying cognitive decline in Alzheimer’s disease, for example, can examine it through various lenses—not only learning about the degeneration of neural pathways that leads to cognitive decline, but also receiving training in the cognitive and behavioral effects on patients experiencing the disease.

The result is a more holistic approach than would traditionally be seen in a neuroscience Ph.D. program.

Having this community of people who are taking different approaches to the same issue means our students have the tools to solve more complex problems out in the world.

— Kathy Maguire-Zeiss, Ph.D.

The brain is incredibly complicated,” VanMeter says. “If you focus on a tiny part and not the full hierarchy, you will lose the bigger picture of cognitive health and wellness of the brain overall.”

For a relatively small, tight-knit program—the cohort that. started in 2022 has just 12 students—the IPN has remarkable reach. Demonstrating the strength of neurosciences at Georgetown, and the cross-cutting nature of the IPN, its students are eligible for eight different NIH-funded training grants, known as T-32s, led by IPN faculty housed in a variety of departments.

Maguire-Zeiss, who preceded VanMeter as IPN director, says that Gale’s legacy is a growing community of well-rounded, curious lifelong learners.

“The idea that neurons don’t fire in isolation, but rather fire in ensembles to make a stronger connection, can also be applied to the program,” Maguire-Zeiss says. “Having this community of people who are taking different approaches to the same issue means our students have the tools to solve more complex problems out in the world.”

Beyond academia

The IPN may be the hub, but the mentors and collaborators help create a ripple effect well beyond the bounds of the program. In fact, the program deliberately aims to remove barriers and build bridges to other disciplines and institutions.

“One thing we have come to appreciate is that a career in academia is not necessarily the end goal for all our students,” says VanMeter. “There are many different avenues they can pursue, from shaping policy to working in the private sector, scientific associations, or a clinical setting. We encourage them to explore their options.”

Georgetown’s location in the nation’s capital makes it easy to connect students with policy organizations in the area, such as the National Academy of Sciences or the Society for Neuroscience. Students interested in learning more about clinical applications of neuroscience can choose mentors from institutions such as the National Institutes of Health, Children’s National Hospital, or the MedStar National Rehabilitation Hospital, Georgetown’s academic health system partner.

“In academia it’s not uncommon for mentors to end up training a ‘mini-me’—they are just passing along what they know,” Maguire-Zeiss says. “We actively work against that tendency by creating a large support network of strong connections around our students so they can be exposed to as much as possible during their time with us.”

The skills students learn outside the lab are becoming increasingly important as students see the value in being able to apply their scientific knowledge to a variety of different settings.

“Neuroscience itself is inherently interdisciplinary. By not being tied to any one department, we have the freedom and flexibility to draw on the expertise from across the university.”

— Ashley VanMeter, Ph.D.

“Academia is a pyramid—there are only so many faculty and research positions,” says Chandan Vaidya, a cognitive neuroscientist and professor in the psychology department and an IPN faculty member. “We are no longer training students exclusively for these narrow careers in academia.”

Over the course of three decades, 162 students have completed the IPN. Less than half—just 42%—of these graduates work in academia, while 18% work in government or policy positions, and another 8% work in business. The remaining 32% work in a variety of fields, including health care, technology, biotech, science communications, and nonprofit research.

Regardless of the path a student chooses, Vaidya stresses that a breadth of experience will make any scientist better at their specialty because they are not limited to skills they learned in one lab.

“We are preparing students to occupy much broader spaces—and there are more options than ever,” she says.

A sense of community

Perhaps because the IPN doesn’t fall neatly into any one department, the program’s students tend to seek out and cultivate community where they can. This might mean forming collaborations with other students from other graduate programs who share their classes, starting interdisciplinary clubs, and teaming up on community outreach initiatives.

This sense of community is not limited to IPN students—they are part of a much broader ecosystem at Georgetown that includes postdoctoral fellows and undergraduate students with diverse academic backgrounds, but with a shared interest in understanding the brain. These students interact in formal and informal ways, exchanging advice on courses, assignments, experiments, and even career opportunities.

“It’s like a big family,” Vaidya says. “There is a lot of advice and mentorship that gets passed along among the postdocs, the IPN students, and undergraduate students—many of whom hope to become medical students. These interactions are invaluable.”

As the first doctoral candidate in his family, Colon says the sense of community he has experienced has bolstered his confidence and helped set him up for success.

“Coming into the program, I didn’t really understand all that goes into getting a Ph.D. Especially as a person of color, I had hardly seen people in my family or other people of color who were in scientific roles,” Colon says. “Right away I saw that there were faculty and students here who want me to succeed, and who care about me as a person, and not just as a student or scientist.”

(Left to right) Psychology professor Chandan Vaidya, Ph.D., pre-med student Brenna Towell (C’23), and IPN graduate student Adam Kaminsky, Ph.D. (G’26) discuss a project involving the brain’s executive control and factors involving its physical and mental breakdown.
(Left to right) Psychology professor Chandan Vaidya, Ph.D., pre-med student Brenna Towell (C’23), and IPN graduate student Adam Kaminsky, Ph.D. (G’26) discuss a project involving the brain’s executive control and factors involving its physical and mental breakdown.

Learning to teach

For Sikoya Ashburn (G’18, G’20), who earned her doctorate from the IPN in 2020, the program’s signature was in the opportunities it gave her, not just to learn, but to teach. The culture was oriented toward encouraging the doctoral candidates to share their knowledge with others.

This was particularly meaningful to Ashburn, a Black woman who, as a young girl interested in science, struggled to find role models in the sciences who looked like her.

“In sixth grade we had to research a scientist, and I couldn’t find a Black woman scientist in our library,” Ashburn says. “I refused to believe they didn’t exist, and I kept looking, but I still remember that feeling.”

Ashburn jumped on opportunities to work with DC students during her time in the program, taking part in activities such as Brain Awareness Week, an internationally recognized event where science students, including a group at Georgetown, teach middle schoolers about the brain. She also joined fellow students in teaching science at Bancroft Elementary School, a bilingual English-Spanish public elementary school in the District.

Ashburn’s mentor, Guinevere Eden, professor of pediatrics at Georgetown University Medical Center and director of the Center for the Study of Learning, encouraged her community outreach activities. Ashburn was also able to be a course director for a few semesters and had several opportunities to give lectures on her area of research, the cerebellum’s involvement in neurodevelopmental disorders.

Now a postdoctoral fellow at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Ashburn has already garnered recognition as a scientific role model. In 2020, she was listed as one of the 1,000 Inspiring Black Scientists by Cell Mentor, and in 2022, she was awarded a competitive fellowship from the L’Oreal for Women in Science Foundation and the American Association for the Advancement in Science.

She credits her time at Georgetown and the IPN for giving her the tools and opportunities to see herself as a teacher and mentor.

“One of my favorite moments was during Brain Awareness Week. There was a little Black girl there who had an afro, and I also had an afro, and she turned around and asked me if I was the adult version of her,” Ashburn says. “Honestly, it made my entire year.”

The IPN’s creative interdisciplinary approach helps students step out of their comfort zones and tap into the best version of themselves, says Maguire-Zeiss. She says they are are trained to pursue their careers “being more authentically themselves and not necessarily just doing what’s expected.”

“Our job as mentors is to help them figure out their passion, what they’re good at, and how that passion shows up in the world,” she says. “That’s the sweet spot—and I think we give them everything they need to do that.” 

The Interdisciplinary Program in Neuroscience is just one of the many ways Georgetown is shaping the future of teaching, research, and learning as we become the university we are called to be. Learn more at

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