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St. Lawrence professors and students taking part in the Neuroscience of Fear summer course stand outside the Museo Laboratorio della Mente (Laboratory of the Mind Museum) in Rome, Italy. St. Lawrence professors and students taking part in the Neuroscience of Fear summer course stand outside the Museo Laboratorio della Mente (Laboratory of the Mind Museum) in Rome, Italy.
Learning For The 21st Century

A Deeper Understanding of the Primal Emotion That Connects Us

The Neuroscience of Fear, part of our Global Classroom Initiative, illustrates two priorities of The Campaign for Every Laurentian: Learning for the 21st Century and The Power of Connections.

“We visited the Catacombs of Rome and walked to the top of St. Peter’s Basilica,” Julia Wagner ’20 says. “It was definitely a fearful experience for anyone who is claustrophobic or afraid of heights.”

This was part of The Neuroscience of Fear, one of the most popular Global Classroom experiences. Launched to expand learning opportunities, our global learning initiative is working. Nearly 75 percent of our students take part in 30 research and academic programs taught in 20 countries by Laurentian faculty. These summer classes offer international experience to more St. Lawrence students — especially those with demanding research or athletic schedules, or perhaps a lack of financial capacity.

Still, why would a course that combines the experience and science of fear be so popular? Wagner explains:

“This course connects some really important areas of science. Majoring in psychology means focusing primarily on behavior: what people do, and why they do it. Like a lot of people who study psychology, I also wanted to know more about human biology and how thinking or reactions are influenced by the body and various structures within it. This course gave me that and a clearer understanding of neuroscience, essentially the mechanics of the brain and the entire nervous system.”

Wagner adds that, even when we know we’re approaching the ornately set bones of the catacombs or the top of a dome, actually seeing them will cause physical reactions: heart pounding, sweating, trembling. The students remain safe, of course, but in these places they are able to perceive danger. The result is fear.

It is one of humanity’s oldest and most ubiquitous emotions — and, because of that, it can be terrifically useful in scientific settings. Phobias and perceptions of a threat can, in a way, calibrate our understanding of fear. 

Joe Erlichman designed the Neuroscience of Fear course. During the academic year, the St. Lawrence biology professor teaches classes and conducts research in neuroscience, anatomy and physiology.

“Most organisms have some sort of fear or defensive response,” he says. “In terms of demystifying many parts of our behavior, fear is something everybody can appreciate. You can think of fear as the processing of that defensive stimuli.”

The course can help students see what Erlichman calls “the basic circuitry” that gives rise to fear.

In terms of core instinct or emotion, fear was the first to be explored and it continues to be the most studied. Perhaps most importantly, fear’s effect on the human body has been mapped.

“From our first sense of fear stimuli to the transmission of that stimuli to the amygdala and the brain itself,” he says, “we can see how our physiology is triggered by and reacts to fear. Understanding this, even at a basic level, helps us more deeply examine our responses to many kinds of stimuli.”

It is this examination, he says, that yields more breakthroughs.

“There’s a lot more to know about fear,” he adds, “and there are many more emotions to study. Lab work is an important part of all this, but putting students in places that challenge them, places that open their minds in ways that classrooms and labs can’t, that is an opportunity to advance this science. The St. Lawrence students who take this course in Rome have a better chance to delve more deeply into psychology and neuroscience. These are the future professionals I expect to see doing the work, publishing the studies, and discovering more important features of our intellect and emotions.”

Networks: Neural and Professional

Psychology major Julia Wagner says the faculty-led program in Rome often took on the characteristics of a mentorship.

“The other students and I were able to really connect with both our professors,” she says.

Faculty in the St. Lawrence neuroscience program rotate teaching this course. Last summer, it was taught by Psychology Associate Professor Loraina Ghiraldi and Associate Professor of Biology & Psychology Ana Estevez, who holds the Sarah Johnson ’82 Professorship in the Sciences.

“Simultaneously learning from and traveling with your professor is a unique opportunity,” Wagner says. “The result was a relationship that I think would be unattainable, otherwise. We were able to ask about course material while standing in the Roman Colosseum and talk about Italian gelato in class. It was a great balance to have while studying abroad.”

Professor Estevez agrees. “We were in an intense setting for three hours a day, every day. And this is a challenging course, and it requires students to immerse themselves in the scientific issues and research that we cover. On top of all this, we also ask the students to keep a log of their thoughts, their feelings, and other reactions to the things they’re learning and experiencing. In an environment like that, where you’re developing as students and professors, you do really get to know each other.”

Estevez, Ghiraldi, and the students in the Neuroscience of Fear course also got to know some of their counterparts in Rome. As part of our Global Classroom Initiative, St. Lawrence partners with the Lorenzo de’ Medici Institute.

“Science is very global,” Estevez says, “very collaborative. We had faculty members from different research institutes in Rome come talk to us so we could learn about the work they’re doing that’s tied to neuroscience. We make these connections so our students can have substantive interactions with scientists. This is something St. Lawrence does well. It expands our professional network and it furthers scientific inquiry. This course just brings together so many people — and so much knowledge.”

The Connections That Empower Us

St. Lawrence wants to increase the percentage of students who pursue their academic interests overseas. Raising funds for the Global Classroom initiative will eventually ensure that every undergraduate who qualifies to study abroad will have the resource backing to do so.

These summer programs are often the only opportunity student scientists and athletes have to study abroad, but the expense — at a time of year when federal aid is not available to most students — can make it difficult. Additional funding from Laurentian giving would help more students attend classes overseas.

The University has repeatedly demonstrated its ability to connect people, their ideas, and their aspirations. Together, we can do more by helping our students get the most from the St. Lawrence network. This is a priority of The Campaign for Every Laurentian.

To fully fund the Global Classroom Initiative, we are seeking Laurentian donors who can:

Endow summer courses taught off-campus: these endowments cover costs that include offering the course and infrastructure (classrooms, labs, etc.)

Endow a summer support travel grant: funding air-fare, lodging, and other student expenses while traveling to and studying in off-campus courses

Endow a summer internship/field course or language-study fellowship: supports student completion of off-campus intercultural internships, language study, or field research experience

Meeting these fundraising goals will enable students to realize their own unique potential. These resources would enhance their knowledge and experience and empower them to make meaningful contributions to — and connections within — their communities around the world.

To learn more about the Global Classrooms Initiative and growing and strengthening the Laurentian network, contact Terri Selby, executive director of major and planned gifts: tselby@stlawu.edu or (315) 229-5542.