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Once struggling with career choice, Dopheide has found her lane

Barry McNamara
07/20/2017
MONMOUTH, Ill. – Monmouth College psychology professor Marsha Dopheide vividly remembers what she was doing when the course of her professional career changed.

“I was watching TV with a friend,” said Dopheide, who earlier this year was promoted to full professor after completing her 12th year at Monmouth. “He had bipolar disorder and, in fact, he’d had an episode that week. I was thinking that I wanted to focus on learning about the brain, but I didn’t know what kind of job that would be. I knew that I didn’t want to be a counselor.

“So we were watching The Learning Channel, and there was a show about the brain. I said, ‘That’s what I want to do.’ I remember leaning forward, waiting for the man’s title and name to show up on the screen. He was a doctor of neuroscience. I finally had a name for the job.”

Until that point, Dopheide was pursuing a career in nursing, which had been a fallback path after Plan A – teaching English – developed some holes because, among other things, “standing in front of a class terrified me.”

After taking advice to follow the nursing path, Dopheide set out to become a certified nursing assistant. But that path also got muddied.

“I loved being a nurse’s aide, but I realized I could not be a nurse because I could not cause pain to make someone feel better,” she said. “Plus, I almost passed out at clinicals.”

Observing Alzheimer’s patients

Emboldened by her Learning Channel epiphany, Dopheide dropped out of nursing school and pursued a degree in psychology. She said her studies were driven not only by her bipolar friend but also by Alzheimer’s patients she observed while working at a nursing home.

“I remember one night, I thought the hard part of the night was over since we’d gotten everyone to bed,” she recalled. “Just as I was about to enjoy some coffee, there was a lot of commotion. One of the ladies was going through the rooms, getting everybody up, because she thought it was morning. I remember another lady reading a card with news of the death of a loved one. She kept ahold of the card, and every half hour or so she’d read it again. It was like it was the first time she’d read the card and the news was brand new. Another lady could play the piano beautifully from memory, but then had no memory of her family members at lunch. Those things really got me interested in learning about memory and what aspects of it I wanted to study.”

Three years after completing her bachelor’s degree at Western Illinois University, Dopheide earned her master’s degree there. She received her Ph.D . from the University of Missouri during the early part of her Monmouth career.

Piquing students’ interests

Today, standing in front of a class is part of Dopheide’s daily life, but that hurdle is much easier to clear now that she’s found her lane – piquing students’ interests about the brain and cognition and helping to guide their research.

“I try to frame everything in a context they will find relevant and interesting,” said Dopheide, who said her class “Mind, Brain and Behavior” is an especially strong vehicle for piquing students’ interest. “I like to give them little nuggets of things, and then they read, and then they’ve got questions.”

Dopheide devotes significant time to providing the answers.

“I received a teaching evaluation once that said something like, ‘I don’t know how she teaches, because her students ask so many questions,’” she said. “But I want that to happen. The students develop their own questions on topics I would’ve lectured about anyway.”

In much the same way, Dopheide guides students’ research, encouraging them to pursue topics in which they have a personal interest, or about which they have a lot of questions.

“In class, some students were asking me about a story that was in the news at the time about how a recreational drug called Spice, or K2, had caused several young people at a bonfire to go to the ER,” she said. “Those questions led to the students investigating the efforts of Spice on cognition. Other projects also come from their interests, such as the effects of alcohol withdrawal and whether Xanax reduces anxiety. I’ve found that when students are really interested in the topic, they give it their all.”

Dopheide has held down a pair of significant roles on campus besides teaching psychology. She recently completed a four-year term on Faculty Senate, and she’s served as coordinator of the College’s Honors Program for the past six years. She also serves as the faculty adviser for students considering a career in occupational therapy.