Neuroscience Undergraduate Expands Skills through NIH Scholarship

Bethany Sauls

Bethany Sauls, a neuroscience junior, spent last summer working in a National Institutes of Health laboratory. Upon graduation, Sauls will work as a research assistant for NIH.

Inspiration can occur anywhere. For UT Dallas neuroscience junior Bethany Sauls, it struck in the Amazon rain forest and led her to one of the most prestigious research facilities in the world, the National Institutes of Health.

After graduating salutatorian from her high school in Houston, Sauls took time off from school to figure out what she wanted to do with her life. She eventually began working at Casa de Fe in Ecuador, where she taught art to orphaned and physically disabled children. The children’s situations greatly affected Sauls.

“A lot of the time, if a child has physical disabilities and they’re living in rural areas, the children can’t work and it becomes a real burden to the family,” Sauls said.

Sauls said disabled children are especially vulnerable to physical and mental abuse because of the poor living conditions in the rural communities. The children often have behavioral issues as a result. She tried to incorporate art therapy into her classes and began an after-school mentoring program for the children. Sauls assembled the school’s first art show, which still occurs annually.

“I was interested in therapy, but it felt like it was just addressing the symptoms,” Sauls said. “To have a kid that acts out, you only intervene after they act out. I wanted to know what exactly caused these behaviors; how does abuse or stressful situations change the way they think or the way they see themselves?”

I really liked UT Dallas and the School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences because the program encouraged interdisciplinary pursuits. At UT Dallas, I knew I would be able to combine my passions for neuroscience, child development and psychology.

Bethany Sauls,
neuroscience junior

Sauls started digging around the Internet to find answers.

“I finally stumbled on the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University and read some of their working papers. There was one about how toxic stress affects development,” Sauls said. “It was really cool because they included all these biological and genetic aspects of child development."

Next Stop: UT Dallas

Upon completion of her year at Casa de Fe, Sauls returned to the U.S. and enrolled in the School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences at UT Dallas. She has since worked in the labs of Dr. Michael Kilgard and Dr. Jonathan Ploski as an undergraduate research assistant. Her work with Ploski has centered on exploring the molecular basis of fear learning and memory.

“I really liked UT Dallas and the School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences because the program encouraged interdisciplinary pursuits. At UT Dallas, I knew I would be able to combine my passions for neuroscience, child development and psychology,” Sauls said.

In addition to her academic and research commitments, Sauls worked to pay for college. But then last year the National Institutes of Health awarded her an undergraduate scholarship that covers her tuition and expenses. The annual scholarship requires recipients to work in an NIH lab each summer, and, after graduation, work as a paid research assistant for NIH for an equal number of years.

Last summer, Sauls worked in the NIH lab of Dr. Barry Kaplan designing experiments for recognition memory. Working in the lab, she learned techniques and methods that will serve her throughout her career. But some of her most informative and scientifically charged discussions occurred during daily coffee breaks, she said.

“I was challenged in and outside the lab. Conversations were mostly centered on science — how to think about it and how to approach it,” Sauls said. “I believe I left Dr. Kaplan’s lab with a stronger perspective on research and most importantly, I left more confident in articulating my research.”

An Opportunity to Develop, Explore

In addition to the science, the program at NIH involved a heavy dose of career exploration and personal development. Sauls attended discussions that involved taking the Myers-Briggs personality test; learning about communicating, conflict resolution and professional grooming; and exploring the different career options available to a scientist.

“One of the things they were pushing was the diversity of the field,” Sauls said. “There are opportunities to combine policy work with clinical research. You can also pursue advocacy work or you can run a laboratory. While the opportunities are endless and I am happy I was exposed to them, it was also pretty overwhelming. I thought I knew what I wanted to do, but now I’m not sure. There are a lot of different ways I can help.”

While she may not know exactly what she wants to with science right now, Sauls does know one thing — she can’t wait to see where inspiration will take her next.

Media Contact: The Office of Media Relations, UT Dallas, (972) 883-2155, [email protected].

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