Barry McNamara  |   Published February 15, 2021

A Love Affair With Science

New neuroscience professor Janet Ugolino helps students explore the ‘final frontier of biology.’

MONMOUTH, Ill. – First, Janet Ugolino fell in love with science. Then she realized how much she enjoyed teaching it to others.

JANET UGOLINO: Joined Monmouth's faculty last fall to teach in the College's new neurosci... JANET UGOLINO: Joined Monmouth's faculty last fall to teach in the College's new neuroscience major.And that’s the short version of how Ugolino wound up at Monmouth College, where’s she in her first year as an assistant professor in the College’s recently added neuroscience major.

The longer version begins in Troy, Michigan, while Ugolino was in high school.

“I really fell in love with science, particularly chemistry,” she said. “I had a really great teacher my sophomore year.”

Ugolino initially decided to pursue forensic chemistry at Mercyhurst College (now Mercyhurst University) in Erie, Pennsylvania.

“I thought that would be a really cool application of chemistry,” she said.

Soon, however, she found something cooler – biochemistry.

“I took cell biology my sophomore year,” she said. “I hadn’t been that into biology in high school, but after I took it in college, I changed my major. I really enjoyed learning about how life works at the smallest level.”

Ugolino’s next step was at the University of Maryland, Baltimore, where she pursued her doctorate.

“They had a large life sciences umbrella program, where you could do research with almost any professor on campus,” she said. “There were a lot of options.”

“Neuroscience is really great for a school like Monmouth to have because of its interdisciplinary focus. It really helps to have an understanding of psychology, chemistry, biology, even computer science.” Janet Ugolino

One of those options put her in a lab that was studying pathways associated with neurodegenerative diseases.

“I was interested in that because my grandfather had Parkinson’s disease,” said Ugolino, whose grandmother later suffered from dementia. “So I got into neuroscience through that neurodegenerative lab.”

A popular academic field

Ugolino said her personal experience with such diseases is not unique. In fact, it’s one reason why neuroscience has become such a popular field for today’s college students.

“It’s like outer space – the brain is the final frontier of biology,” she said. “Every time I tell someone what I do, they always say, ‘Oh, I know someone with Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s.’ Plus, neuroscience is really great for a school like Monmouth to have because of its interdisciplinary focus. It really helps to have an understanding of psychology, chemistry, biology, even computer science. So it’s great for a liberal arts school that supports that type of learning.”

“I went to a small liberal arts college, and I had a really great relationship with the professors in my department. I realized along the way that I wanted to do the same thing for a student that all those professors had done for me.” Janet Ugolino

Ugolino completed her Ph.D. in five years, but she hadn’t done something she’d hoped to do – working with an organism. She was able to do so during her five-year post doctorate experience at nearby Johns Hopkins University, working with the roundworm known as C. elegans. It was the first multicellular organism to have its whole genome sequenced and, as of 2019, the only organism to have its connectome (neuronal “wiring diagram”) completed.

Connecting with students

The rest of the longer version of Ugolino’s story involves the human connection – a connection that she, like so many others, is eager to return to in a post-COVID-19 world.

“I went to a small liberal arts college, and I had a really great relationship with the professors in my department,” she said. “I realized along the way that I wanted to do the same thing for a student that all those professors had done for me.”

Another key realization came at Johns Hopkins.

“That feeling was solidified working with undergraduate students while getting my Ph.D., but especially during my post doc,” said Ugolino. “I still liked doing research, but I really liked mentoring students one-on-one. I realized that was becoming the highlight of my day.”

After five years at Johns Hopkins, Ugolino decided to pursue full-time teaching, first landing a one-year position as a sabbatical replacement at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Virginia, then working for three years as a visiting assistant professor at Roanoke (Va.) College.

“I love being in the classroom, I love interacting with students,” she said.

There are two things she especially wants to accomplish at Monmouth, and they figure to come in time.

“I’m really looking forward to the day when I see a student who I taught as a freshman graduate,” she said. “I’m looking forward to seeing that transformation.”

Along the way, she also wants to be in the crowd when her students participate in some of their cocurricular activities, such as competing for Fighting Scots teams, acting in plays or singing in choral groups.

“The pandemic has really made it more difficult to get to know my students,” she said. “There are fewer opportunities to interact with them. I miss that connection.”

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