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Sarah Venditto ’14 Enters Prestigious Neuroscience Ph.D. Program at Princeton

Sarah Venditto ’14 Enters Prestigious Neuroscience Ph.D. Program at Princeton

Sarah Venditto '14 on a recent visit to Bethel to discuss career options with new physics and engineering students.

“They’re reading the rat’s mind…post hoc? This is so cool,” Sarah Venditto ’14 remembers thinking as Professor of Psychology Adam Johnson and student researchers presented findings at a pizza lunch for Bethel’s undergraduate research teams a few summers ago.

Johnson and his team were sharing learning and memory-related hippocampal data collected from rodents, which—because of similarities to human brain function—could give rise to treatments for Alzheimer’s and related neurological diseases. Venditto was so intrigued that she approached Johnson after the luncheon and asked him to teach her more.

Venditto was a physics major spending summers as a lab research assistant with Professor of Physics Chad Hoyt, who was building a magneto-optical trap. She felt at home in the physics department—inspired by close relationships with nationally-recognized faculty—but had felt a tug toward the mathematical side of the field. In neuroscience, she realized that she had stumbled upon a field that brought together the physics with statistical algorithms, data modeling, and real-world medical implications.

“People usually see a tension between faith and science—I can say that my faith absolutely informs the way I view this work. I’m learning more about God’s creation; how God works in the little intricacies in the brain,” she says of her work. “Sometimes I’m overwhelmed by how complicated it is, how amazing our Creator must be to design this system we can barely scratch the surface of. We need people who understand both faith and science—who can bridge these two disparate communities. The two sides really do work synergistically.”

Over her remaining years at Bethel, Venditto maintained a physics major but focused on neuroscience, working closely with Johnson and becoming one of Bethel’s first undergraduate students to pursue that area of study before an official program was launched in 2017.

“Sarah was a bright student who, like many others, wasn't immediately sure what academic direction she'd like to take. While she figured this out, she contributed nicely to our atomic, molecular, and optics lab,” Hoyt says. “Soon she was lucky enough to cross into the intellectual orbit of Adam Johnson, whose combination of active research, sharp thinking, and student engagement was just the ticket for Sarah. It was fascinating to watch and a good match for her skills. Physics and engineering fosters a community of student researchers who are challenged according to their individual skills, tastes, and career directions. But Adam's involvement in physics has been something more: a tremendous, collaborative benefit to the department and these strong students with curiosity in neuroscience.”

Following a break after college—during which she rounded out her resume by taking a research assistant position with one of Johnsons’ contacts in Indiana—she landed a spot in Princeton’s prestigious graduate neuroscience program fellowship and began in fall 2017.

“It was purely the connections I made at Bethel that got me here,” she says, giving credit to Johnson. She recalls the day he was re-diagnosed with cancer in 2012 and how he continued to pour into students and build Bethel’s neuroscience program even in the face of invasive treatments and a terminal prognosis. “He never let his terrible news get in the way of teaching. I’m so indebted to his remarkable dedication to teaching.”

Cancer claimed Johnson’s life in April 2018, and Venditto is just one of a handful of his protégés who have gone on to competitive graduate programs and fellowships in neuroscience. Kellan Moorse ’16 is completing a post-baccalaureate fellowship with the National Institutes of Health (NIH), working on bioimaging and image processing at the NIH Imaging Physics Laboratory. He’s entering a graduate program in computation and neural systems at CalTech in fall 2018. Goldwater Scholar Luke Arend ’18 is spending a gap year as a research assistant at the Center for Brains, Minds and Machines at MIT, using techniques from artificial intelligence to study how vision works in the brain. This trio of impressive graduates illustrate Johnson’s commitment to student success and the caliber of the growing neuroscience program he built at Bethel.

“The physics department has worked for decades to encourage more of its students toward gaining full support at CalTech, MIT, and Princeton. So Adam's bunch of neuroscience placements really catches my eye with both envy and admiration,” says University Professor of Physics Emeritus Richard “Dick” Peterson. He knew Venditto, Moorse, and Arend, all physics majors who found great success in the fascinating, multidisciplinary field of neuroscience. “It’s largely because of Adam's reputation and drive that these students have earned full support at such elite neuroscience programs.”

Read Bethel’s memorial to Adam Johnson, published on April 13. Or learn more about studying neuroscience or physics at Bethel.

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