Breaking news: In pursuit of the mind-body connection
In pursuit of the mind-body connection
As Alison Bashford ’20 embarks on a Ph.D. in neuroscience, it has roots in dance
By: Scott Snyder
Monday, August 8, 2022 4:36 PM
Alison Bashford ’20 didn’t even know Muhlenberg had a neuroscience program when she arrived on campus in the fall of 2016. She did knew that the College offered strong programs in dance and science, and that studying here would allow her to pursue her passion for both.
This fall, she is undertaking a doctorate. studies neuroscience at Drexel University in Philadelphia, and she still dances.
Bashford’s studies at Drexel will be supported by a prestigious National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship – only about 2,000 of the 12,000 students who apply each year receive funding. Her program begins with two years of coursework in advanced and statistical neuroscience and rotations in various research labs before she settles on a three- to four-year thesis project.
Bashford says his current research interests focus on the brain chemistry of addiction. His first research rotation at Drexel will study the role of the brain chemical dopamine in cocaine addiction in rats. But where her research journey might ultimately take her is still up in the air.
“It’s pretty open at this point,” she says. “You start with a question and you think it’s going somewhere, then it goes all over the place depending on what you find. And that informs your next question.
Bashford’s journey began in Muhlenberg, where she began planning a major in biology and a minor in dance.
“I didn’t always have to run from science lab to science lab. I have to make ballet between biology and chemistry.”
“Then I started thinking about how these two things are related,” she says. “Why am I studying these two things at the same time? And I got really interested in thinking about the mind-body connection and how I could use those two interests to build a career.
Her minor in dance became a major, with a concentration in dance science and courses in anatomy and kinesiology (the study of movement in the human body). At the time, she thought she might like to pursue a career as a physical therapist for a ballet company. She got an internship in physiotherapy, but she wasn’t entirely convinced. Still, her interest in the brain-body connection persisted, and a few weeks before her sophomore year, she changed her schedule to add her first neuroscience class, Brain and Behaviour. That did the trick.
“I was really into psychology and really interested in human behavior and mental illness, especially memory impairment,” she says. “I really wanted to be part of the work that advanced the treatment of mental illness.”
Bashford contacted Gretchen Gotthard, a professor of neuroscience and psychology whose research focuses on memory disorders, about research opportunities, and she joined Gotthard’s lab in the spring semester of her sophomore year. It quickly became clear to Bashford that her professional interests led her toward science and away from dance, but she was grateful to be able to pursue both.
“I really enjoyed being a dance student,” she says. “I loved being part of the dance community, I loved the classes I took. I didn’t always have to run from science lab to science lab. I have to ballet between biology and chemistry.
Along with Gotthard, Bashford credits neuroscience professor Jeremy Teissere with supporting his interdisciplinary activities. The teachers in the dance program were also supportive, and she often had conversations with the dance teachers about her neuroscience classes and how they applied to her dance work.
“I think what I appreciate most about Muhlenberg is their support for interdisciplinarity,” says Bashford. “A lot of art departments and science departments are very strict about focusing on one area. I never felt compelled to spend all my time doing one or the other. I have always felt extremely empowered by both departments.
Bashford was one of a handful of students working with Gotthard on memory research with rats—teaching the rats a task, then using the drug cycloheximide to disrupt the rats’ memory of the task.
“Our goal was to see if we could disrupt much older memories, compared to more recent memories,” Bashford says. “The work has applications in the treatment of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and different traumatic memory-related disorders.”
Bashford was one of four Gotthard student co-authors on a scientific paper published in the journal Learning and Motivation. The group presented their work at the International Convention of Psychological Sciences in Paris in the spring of Bashford’s freshman year and again the following fall at the Society for Neuroscience conference in Chicago.
At the same time, she was performing in “Dance Gallery” concerts during both semesters of her senior year and founding a student organization, Women in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) to advocate for women in science at Muhlenberg. and in the community of Lehigh Valley.
“The liberal arts education our students receive encourages them to make unique and meaningful connections – and Alison is a great example of that,” says Gotthard. “She is poised to make significant contributions to the field of neuroscience and beyond – I am excited to see where her postgraduate work will take her.!”
After graduating magna cum laude in the spring of 2020, Bashford spent two years conducting research at the National Institute of Mental Health in Bethesda, Maryland through the prestigious Intramural Research Training Award program, designed to helping young scientists bridge the gap between their undergraduate studies and degree training. She was part of a group that studied the role of a particular part of the thalamus region of the brain in motivational and fearful behavior in mice. Bashford says the work has potential application to treating anxiety disorders in humans.
Although her current research interests are not directly related to movement and dance, Bashford says she has spent a lot of time thinking about the connections between neuroscience and dance, and her dance training has profoundly affected her brain thinking.
“A lot of the time in class we were talking about proprioception and other mind-body phenomena, and it was always full circle for me,” she says. “I feel like I’m always thinking about behavior, and I think movement is always part of my life and my research. Being a mover is part of you; he stays with you.
Bashford was thrilled to learn that her new apartment in Philadelphia was just around the corner from the Koresh Dance Company.
“It’s literally a two-minute walk away, and they have great self-serve classes, so I’m definitely planning on doing that,” she says. “And if I have the opportunity to give dance lessons, I would love to do so. I definitely plan to keep him in my life.
After completing graduate school, Bashford says she would like to split her time between research and teaching, ideally at a small liberal arts college.
“I’m also very interested in science journalism and science policy work,” she says. “This is a recent interest of mine that I hope to explore as I prepare for my PhD. to understand what follows. I’m happy to start.
PHOTOS — Above: Alison Bashford ’20. Right: Alison dances on the steps of the Trexler Pavilion. Left: Alison presents research results from her group’s work on memory in rats, at the 2019 Society for Neuroscience conference in Chicago.
About the Department of Theater and Dance at Muhlenberg College
Muhlenberg offers Bachelor of Arts degrees in theater and dance. The Princeton Review has ranked Muhlenberg’s theater program among the top twelve in the nation for eight consecutive years, and the Fiske Guide to Colleges lists theater and dance programs among the best small college programs in the United States. Muhlenberg is one of eight colleges listed in Fiske for theater and dance.
About Muhlenberg College
Founded in 1848, Muhlenberg is a highly selective private four-year residential liberal arts college offering bachelor’s and graduate degree programs. With an enrollment of approximately 2,200 students, Muhlenberg College is dedicated to developing creative, compassionate, and collaborative leaders through rigorous academic programs in the arts, humanities, natural sciences, and social sciences. some pre-professional programs, including accounting, business, education, and public health; and post-baccalaureate certificates and progressive master’s degrees focused on the workforce. Located in Allentown, Pennsylvania, about 90 miles west of New York, Muhlenberg is a member of the Centennial Conference, competing in 22 varsity sports. Muhlenberg is affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.