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Faculty Excellence: Classroom to Laboratory

By Erika Mantz, Media Relations
May 27, 2009

Jill A. McGaughy
Jill McGaughy, assistant professor of psychology. Lisa Nugent, Photo Services

Video of a narcoleptic dachshund puppy. Actor Heath Ledger's overdose death. Dolphin training techniques. They all have a place in Jill McGaughy's classroom as she works to infuse the fun, energy, and relevance necessary to get students' guard down and their interest up.

These are not easy topics she teaches—behavioral neuroscience, psychobiology, psychopharmacology—and students state clearly that they struggle to grasp the difficult science, but they also rave about her methods and dedication.

Take for instance the class that looks at the way drugs—legal, prescription ones—affect the brain. The topic of one class might come from MSNBC and another from the students' own experiences.

"Students are on meds for ADHD, depression, and anxiety," she says, "They may have a grandparent struggling with Alzheimer's disease or their favorite actor has died of a drug overdose. It's all around us."

Class discussion can range from the consequences of mixing medications to research showing how thyroid problems can exhibit the same symptoms as psychiatric conditions. Knowing this science, McGaughy believes, empowers students to make better decisions.

"I love that my time in the lab can have a real impact," she says. "There are a lot of kids medicated for ADHD, but no one knows the long-term effects of these drugs because they are so new. Studying rats in the lab means we can see in just 18 months what we would have to wait 40 years for in a human."

Not only do her students have the opportunity to work in her lab doing research, their work there has led them to coauthor articles in prestigious journals. And when McGaughy realized there wasn't a place in the curriculum for students to learn the literature that was shaping their research, she instituted a weekly Journal Club—on her own time—that allows students to discuss real scientific journal articles and give them the big picture context.

"Jill's student evaluations have been extremely and consistently high, the kind that any faculty member would be delighted to achieve," says Edward O'Brien, professor of psychology. "And yet, this only seems to inspire her to become even better. Our discussions are never around how well she's done; instead they center on what she thinks she can do differently to improve student learning."

—Erika Mantz

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