Mysteries of the Brain and Mind

Baylor's psychology and neuroscience department encourages faculty and students to research a wide variety of human experiences

Mysteries of the Brain and Mind

There’s no organ in the human body more complex and mysterious than the brain. It tells the rest of our body what to do and when to do it, and it cradles our thoughts and memories, compulsions and obsessions, aspirations and disappointments. It may be the only part of the body that is irreplaceable. Little wonder, then, that psychology and neuroscience has become one of the busiest departments in Baylor’s College of Arts & Sciences.

“We have about 1,000 undergraduate majors with psychology and neuroscience roughly half and half,” said Dr. Charles A. Weaver III, Master Teacher and chair of psychology and neuroscience. “We have about 100 graduate students, so it’s very quietly become the second largest department on campus behind biology.”

Dr. Alisha Wray
“In a typical year, some 28 doctoral students will counsel as many as 250 clients and screen or refer another 100. Part of our mission is to provide good quality but low-cost services to individuals in our community. We can be one of the only places that they might be able to receive care without insurance.”

–Dr. Alisha Wray

There are a number of reasons for that, he said, with student demand and interest topping the list — in large part because the department is a strong gateway to graduate school.

“Eighty percent of our neuroscience majors are in medical school or graduate school within three years of graduation,” Weaver said. “About two-thirds of our psychology majors are the same way, so our students tend to be successful in the careers they’re interested in pursuing.”

According to Weaver, Baylor’s Doctor of Psychology (PsyD) program for clinical practice is the top-rated program of its kind in the country, with approximately 700 applicants vying for seven slots last year. Meanwhile, the PhD in psychology, aimed at students interested in academic careers, has grown significantly in the last 20 years as well.

“I’d argue that we do a really good job at what we do. It’s a terrific collection of colleagues,” Weaver. said. “We’ve hired incredibly good people for the last 15 or 20 years. The University has shifted its priorities so that research excellence and funding are both essential for one’s success here, and we were about half a generation ahead of the university.”

Teaching Excellence

An undergraduate degree in psychology or neuroscience can lead a student in many different career directions — from premed to academia to clinical counseling. For that reason, Baylor’s department covers a broad range of subjects with small classes taught by highly committed faculty.

“We try to prioritize, and I think we’re very successful in having all of our courses taught by PhDs,” said Dr. Tamara J. Lawrence, senior lecturer in psychology and neuroscience and psychology advisor.

What’s more, research and techniques practiced in the lab are brought into the classroom by the researchers themselves.

“All of our research-intensive faculty take their teaching very seriously,” said Dr. Brad Keele, associate chair and associate professor of psychology and neuroscience. “We’re not a place where people are so successful in their science that they basically teach nothing.”

“Our faculty are excellent scientists who are also excellent teachers, and they enjoy both,” said Dr. Karenna Malavanti, senior lecturer and neuroscience advisor. “Research-active professors develop classes in their specialty, which is of real benefit to our students.”

With so many students heading in different directions academically and professionally, managing academic diversity begins in the New Student Experience course taught by Lawrence.

“The course is populated with psychology majors and neuroscience majors, and those are very different majors, so I focus on life transition — this is where they are in their life and what they need to prepare themselves for,” Lawrence said. “At the same time, I also have to work on their academic path. It just takes putting your hand on every student and walking them through the process.” 

Students are enriched by experiences outside the classroom through lab work, internships and taking part in public outreach events such as Science Day at the Mayborn Museum. They’re also encouraged to explore the full range of a liberal arts education in addition to their science.

“I think we do a great job of trying to connect our content and our topical areas into their life in a way that’s meaningful, that can change their lives, and can help them grow into better parents, better students and better friends,” Malavanti said.

Lawrence said that while it’s clear that Baylor has been focused in recent years on its successful quest to reach Research 1 status among American universities, “I’m very proud of us for still maintaining that teaching be a priority. We’ve also managed to maintain our uniquely Christian identity through all of that as well.”

How does that identity show itself in psychology and neuroscience?

“We are every bit as academically rigorous as other schools are, but we also take an interest in our students’ lives,” Keele said. “We’re more apt to look for ways to assist our students in being successful rather than weeding out the ones who won’t be successful.”

Probing the Brain and Mind

The growth of brain science is pushing Baylor’s psychology and neuroscience department to the upper echelons of research.

“I don’t know that Research 1 and Tier 1 designations are easily reflected at the department level, but in terms of funding and research productivity, I’m sure by most criteria we would already be considered an R1 department,” Weaver said. 

In fact, psychology and neuroscience leads all other departments at Baylor in total research grant funding, including the most grants awarded by the National Institutes of Health. A small sampling of these recent research efforts includes:

Dr. Sara L. Dolan, professor of psychology and neuroscience and associate dean for research in the Graduate School, is looking at the neuropsychological processes that cause substance use problems and their impact on the efficacy of treatments. She’s also working on evidence-based trauma assessments and preventative treatments for depression, substance use, trauma and anxiety in ICU caregivers.

Dr. Christine A. Limbers, associate professor of psychology and graduate program director of the PsyD program, is assessing eating behaviors in children and their caregivers; promoting physical activity in mothers who are employed outside the home; and studying how families are making decisions during COVID-19 about social distancing, school attendance and vaccinations.

Dr. Joaquin N. Lugo Jr., associate professor of psychology and neuroscience and graduate program director of the PhD program, is working to understand the relationship between epilepsy and autism, including how seizures during early life result in autistic-like behavioral deficits. 

Dr. Sarah A. Schnitker, associate professor of psychology, is examining how religiousness and spirituality both facilitate and undermine character strengths, prosocial engagement and well-being.

Dr. Michael K. Scullin, an associate professor of psychology and neuroscience who directs Baylor’s Sleep Neuroscience and Cognition Laboratory, is studying how sleep patterns and sleep physiology impact cognitive, mental and physical health. 

“One of the strengths of our department is that we have so many undergraduates involved in research and involved at a high level where some of them actually walk away with publications. That’s tough to do as an undergrad, but I think our department has cultivated that.”

– Dr. Michael K. Scullin

Psychology and neuroscience research at Baylor is conducted in an atmosphere that is collaborative rather than competitive.

“It’s definitely a very collegial department, and that comes from the top down,” Limbers said. “Dr. Weaver is just such a good leader, and the tone that he sets is that we’re here to help people and encourage each other.”

It’s also interdisciplinary.

“Almost all of us have interdisciplinary components to our work and we’re going to very different disciplines,” Schnitker said. “So, whereas Joaquin Lugo is collaborating with colleagues in biology, I’m going to talk to the philosophers or the theologians.”

Lugo said the high priority placed on undergraduate research and the breadth of studies sets Baylor apart from some other programs.

“That’s something that we really try to do, and I think our students get a lot out of it,” he said. “Sometimes students will go from one lab to another and find, ‘I thought I’d like this, but I don’t, and this is really what my desire is.’ That’s hard to do when it’s a very focused area, but because we’re so broad, they can gain that kind of experience.”

“One of the strengths of our department is that we have so many undergraduates involved in research and involved at a high level where some of them actually walk away with publications,” Scullin said. “That’s tough to do as an undergrad, but I think our department has cultivated that.”

Just as classroom teaching and research feed off each other, psychology and neuroscience have become intertwined.

“We’ve got much more translational and interdisciplinary work going on that bridges neuroscience all the way through the diagnosis and treatment of clinical disorders,” Dolan said.

Serving the Community

Clinical psychology is put to practice at the Baylor Psychology Clinic, housed in the Baylor Tower on Washington Avenue in downtown Waco. Over the course of the four-year PsyD program plus internship, students work with clients of all ages on the full range of anxiety disorders, depression and trauma-related disorders. They also provide assessments, screenings and referrals, with all services provided on a scale below what would be charged elsewhere.

In a typical year, some 28 doctoral students will counsel as many as 250 clients and screen or refer another 100, said Dr. Alisha Wray, clinical assistant professor and clinic director.

“Part of our mission is to provide good quality but low-cost services to individuals in our community,” she said. “We can be one of the only places that they might be able to receive care without insurance.”

The other part of the psychology clinic’s mission is to train doctoral students, with supervision from Baylor faculty and adjuncts from the community. First-year students have a 20-hour-a-week practicum with a caseload of five to seven therapy clients.

“We are a training clinic so we do want to be able to meet the needs of the people seeking services as much as we can,” said Dr. Regina Hiraoka, clinical assistant professor and associate clinic director. “But if somebody is needing more intensive treatment, or they need what we call wrap-around care — where they might need an interdisciplinary team with medication prescribers, for example — we tend to refer out.”

Wray and Hiraoka emphasized that the therapies provided to clients are “evidence-based,” meaning they have been found to be effective in research studies.

“We want to train our students to be on top of what’s most likely to be effective, and we want to facilitate effectiveness with the clients who are receiving it,” Hiraoka said.

“Because of that, there are many providers in the community who refer clients to our clinic because they know that they’ll receive evidence-based care,” Wray said.

Room for All

Part of the advancement in the sciences of psychology and neuroscience has been the growth in diversity of the students pursuing it, and Baylor’s department is helping to communicate the message that all are welcome in the field.

“If we just think about students that enter the major and those that end up in academia, the numbers start to dwindle in terms of ethnic diversity,” said Dr. Stacy R. Ryan-Pettes, assistant professor of psychology. The reasons for those numbers can  include unequal access to knowledge about building a resume to be competitive for graduate school, and limited undergraduate resumes for students who are unable to take advantage of opportunities to volunteer in research labs because they must work their way through school. 

“So, in our department at Baylor, what we are focused on is that those that come into the major feel like they are included, that they belong in this space, and that we strive to increase access to knowledge and opportunities,” Ryan-Pettes said.

Discussions about diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) are a key part of the New Student Experience course, and the department has an undergraduate student committee that continues those conversations with speakers and programs related to psychology and neuroscience.

“The committee provides  students a forum to have these conversations, but it’s also creating a community around them of individuals who are interested in talking about similar things,” said Dr. Annie T. Ginty, assistant professor of psychology and neuroscience. “Our goal is that if we’re starting that the very first semester students are on campus, we’re setting the tone of, ‘this is important, and these conversations are valued.’”

Further into their academic careers, psychology and neuroscience students from underrepresented backgrounds who want to pursue graduate school can attend workshops on how to search for programs, and they are matched with Baylor faculty mentors to help with their applications.

“Students from marginalized backgrounds can have unequal access to information for various reasons that are systemic,” Ryan-Pettes said. “By putting in place a mentoring program, it draws out the students and provides that equal playing field for applying to graduate school.”

One University-wide effort to promote diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) is Baylor’s Trailblazer Scholars program, which was created in 2020. Five of the 25 students in the first Trailblazer cohort are psychology and neuroscience students. One of these — Tiera Cleveland, a psychology major who is pursuing clinical psychology — said participation in events with different cultural clubs and affinity groups broadened her knowledge of the challenges they face and aligns well with her career aspirations.

“I want to work with communities who aren’t heard or seen or have disparities within them and later contribute to developing culturally competent or mindful intervention for these populations as it pertains to mental health,” Cleveland said.

Anuoluwapo (Anu) Agbi, a neuroscience major who will attend Baylor College of Medicine after she graduates, said taking part in multicultural activities at Baylor, combined with her experiences growing up in Houston, will prepare her for working and serving in a multicultural environment.

“As a physician or a health care provider, you’re going to be interacting with patients of completely different world views and cultures, and it’s going to be up to you to cross those cultural boundaries and be able to communicate well with them,” Agbi said. “If you don’t have that skill set or that empathy or awareness, it’s going to be so much more difficult, because medicine isn’t just practicing and healing a body —  it’s about interacting with an entire person.”

And that interaction begins with the head — both the brain and the mind.