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Division II Exploration

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Analysis of Proust and Baudelaire doesn't often branch into lab research.

Kendra Bechtel saw it as a relatively natural progression.

"I came to Hampshire planning to study French literature and linguistics. One of the classes I took my first year was on the neuroscience of linguistics," she says. "I used to hate science, but I found that fascinating."

The fascination didn't wear off. Now in her third year, Bechtel began by exploring courses offered through the Culture, Brain, and Development program.  Linking Hampshire's Schools of Cognitive Science, Social Science, and Natural Science, CBD allows students to explore the fields that make up the three schools in an interdisciplinary way. Bechtel's advisor, assistant professor of developmental cognitive neuroscience and CBD assistant director Jane Couperus, helped her design a new course of study, and she dove in. Roughly half a dozen neuroscience classes and several pre-med courses have clarified her focus.  An internship with Harvard University assistant professor of psychology Joshua Greene's Moral Cognition Laboratory this past summer narrowed her scope even further.

"The lab was a really friendly place. Everyone wanted you to learn something but also have a good time, too," she says of her two months in Cambridge.

It was a fortunate set of circumstances that led Bechtel to Harvard. As Greene's lab manager, Hampshire alumn Shauna Gordon-McKeon 03F knew of internship openings in the lab and had asked Couperus to encourage her students to apply. It was partly due to studies Gordon-McKeon had done with the Hampshire professor, on how people make moral judgments and why people punish, that led her to her job at Harvard. She thought it was likely there were other students at Hampshire similarly qualified thanks to the background they had gotten in CBD studies. Bechtel fit the bill.

"There's a very egalitarian spirit in our lab that reminds me of Hampshire, a sense that anyone, no matter how new, can have useful insights and ideas to contribute," says Gordon-McKeon. "The whole sub-field of moral neuroscience reminds me very much of Hampshire in terms of how innovative and interdisciplinary the field is. It's a perfect place for young scientists to come in and get their hands dirty, so to speak."

That's just what Bechtel did. Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) machines are used by Greene's lab to investigate the brain activity of test subjects while they are asked certain questions, and one of Bechtel's early tasks was filtering out frames from the fMRI scans in which test subjects heads had moved (potentially tainting the final analysis). It's the sort of grunt work that most internships are built on, but as the summer progressed she took on more challenging work, including running a pre- fMRI study on 50 subjects. The study was one of many aimed at determining how people overcome initially negative emotional responses.

"Kendra played an extremely important role in helping set up the experiment, and in running the first batch of subjects," says Joe Paxton, the graduate student Bechtel worked under in the lab. "When we eventually have results, she would likely have a hand in writing them up for publication."

It was a glimpse of life as a researcher, a gut check of whether or not it was a career she wanted to pursue further. The answer, it turns out, was no.

"Neuroscience research is not necessarily something I want to go into as a career. I enjoyed it, but it's not what I want to do every day," says Bechtel. "When I was having lunch with Josh at the end of the summer, talking about what I had learned, I told him that one of the best things I had discovered at Hampshire was that sometimes it was as important to find out what you don't want to do as it is to find out what you do want to do. It gives you the basis you need to make decisions."

By ruling out research, Bechtel says she is leaning more towards a career in bioethics, studying such areas as the societal impacts of neuroscience research and the medical advances, as well as ethical questions, it can lead to. She is taking classes in medical ethics and an introduction to United States health care this semester to further investigate the field.

"Bioethics is extremely interesting, and very important when it comes to areas like health care reform. It's looking at problems such as how far is it okay to go with technology, or sensitive issues like brain death," she says. "I want to work in health care, possibly arguing for patients' and doctors' rights. I may go to grad school. I'm definitely planning to do another internship next summer. There are some at the White House I'm looking at."

Exploration like this is what being a Div II student is all about. It's the mid-ground of the Hampshire education, past the general studies of first year students in Div I but not yet at the stage of the Div III students who have determined their course and are working on their final yearlong independent projects. There is still room for experimentation, time to discover what possibilities are out there. The groundwork is laid for the intricate, specialized work, the individualized concentration of the Div. III project, but the foundation can still be altered as rough ideas undergo critical scrutiny. It's what Bechtel feels is the reason she came to Hampshire in the first place.

"I went from French literature to organic chemistry, found neither worked for me, and then discovered my real interests," she says. "I don't think if I'd gone anywhere else I'd be studying science."

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