The Department of Neuroscience enters the 2016-2017 academic year with a new endowed professorship, the 23rd endowed faculty position at Kenyon.
The Ashby E. Denoon Assistant Professorship in Neuroscience is named in honor of Ashby E. Denoon ’66, and is paid annually from the investment growth of a principal amount of money. Because endowed funds provide a guaranteed source of annual support, they relieve pressure on Kenyon’s annual operating budget.
Sarah Petersen will be the first to hold the title of Ashby E. Denoon Assistant Professor of Neuroscience. Petersen uses molecular techniques to study how genes direct the development of nervous systems.
Kenyon’s Neuroscience Department began in 1993 as an interdisciplinary program and became a full department in 2012. Neuroscience is now the third-most popular major in the Natural Sciences Division, behind psychology and biology. Professor of Neuroscience and Department Chair Hewlet McFarlane said Petersen adds expertise in molecular development to a department that already features neurochemistry and behavior through his work and features behavioral and auditory science through the work of Associate Professor of Neuroscience Andrew Niemiec. In addition to her neuroscience courses, Petersen also will teach classes in biology.
“It will be great to have someone in the Department of Neuroscience who can do molecular analyses in-house,” McFarlane said. “It will really increase the range of training we can provide to our students. They can now do research projects using modern and sophisticated tools that were not available to students even a few years ago.”
“When I was an undergraduate, this kind of research on a molecular level wasn’t offered,” said Petersen, whose research focuses on how diseases such as multiple sclerosis affect a nervous system. “And usually undergraduates are the lowest on the research totem pole at a large institution. But at Kenyon, they are really doing the research.”
The endowed professorship will enable Petersen to collaborate with students on research involving zebrafish, an organism ideal for the lab for several reasons: zebrafish grow from a single cell to a fully-formed animal in less than five days, they easily absorb drugs placed in their water and they often survive mutations in their genes that humans cannot. Zebrafish also are popular with pet stores because they can be bred to glow.
“If a scientist needs their neurons to light up green or red, you can inject the zebrafish embryos with certain molecules so that they express that,” Petersen said. “To see that happen in front of you is really cool if you’re a young student — and it’s still cool to see when you’re a professor.”
“There are very, very few liberal arts schools that can support the kind of lab I will set up and the level of genetic and drug screening I will do,” Petersen added.
Petersen received a bachelor’s degree from the University of Tennessee in 2004 and a doctorate in cell and developmental biology from Vanderbilt University in 2011. She comes to Kenyon from the Department of Developmental Biology at Washington University in St. Louis, and also served on the faculty of the Citizen Science Program at Bard College in New York.