Science From the Inside Out

NSF grant-winning neuroscience professor Sarah Petersen emphasizes ‘science beyond the bench’ skills.


“You may know a whole lot about something, but if you can’t talk about it with your grandma, how’s your grandma going to care?” said Sarah Petersen, Kenyon’s Ashby Denoon assistant professor of neuroscience. “We’re at a time right now where scientific literacy really matters. We need people to hear about science.”

Petersen’s commitment to mentoring her students in how to communicate scientific work to the world helped earn her a prestigious National Science Foundation CAREER award, which recognizes early-career faculty members who are committed to both research and teaching. Petersen is the third Kenyon faculty member to have an active CAREER grant. 

“When we go into the laboratory, that’s where students learn how to be scientists,” Petersen said. “What I need to teach my students is how to be a scholar, and so I need to model it for myself.” Students even assisted Petersen with her application for the CAREER award, emphasizing what she refers to as the “science beyond the bench” skills that researchers need to succeed. 

“They were working directly with me on the grant-writing process,” Petersen said. “They were in the lab, working, and I’d say, ‘Can you read this? Can you proofread this?’ That is what enables our students to be successful in technical positions, in graduate school, beyond Kenyon.”

Ethan Bradley ’20, a neuroscience major from St. Louis, Missouri, said that Petersen teaches “how science works from the inside out.” “My freshman year, I had no idea how to do any sort of science writing, and she taught me. She’ll go above and beyond for students every step of the way.”

“She treated me like a graduate student, with the expectations of such, from the get-go,” added Afomia Ayele ’21, a neuroscience major from Columbus, Ohio. “Professor Petersen always speaks to us with an incredibly positive attitude and profound passion for the work we do, and we gain a research experience that most other undergrads could only dream of.”

The five-year CAREER grant will support Petersen’s neurological research involving zebrafish, which she uses to study how genes affect the development of nervous systems. Zebrafish “have the same sorts of cells in their nervous system that we have,” Petersen said. “I don’t study fish to understand fish. I study them to understand people. For most of the things we have looked at in fish, there are the genes for them in humans, and many of them are disease-causing genes.” 

Petersen joins CAREER grant recipients Madeline Wade, the Harvey F. Lodish Faculty Development Professor of Natural Sciences, and associate Professor of Physics Aaron Reinhard.

“Part of the reason that Kenyon’s been so successful in getting these awards is that we understand what it looks like to actually integrate education and research in our courses,” Petersen said. As for how she balances her commitment as a teacher with her career as a cutting-edge researcher? “I don't know how it’s possible to be one without the other.”