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Finding God in the Detail

Rachel Nordberg’s passionate about faith and science. She’s passionate about understanding both the biology and psychology behind mental health disorders. And in the past few years at Bethel, she’s done influential research that has helped her to see these passions come together.

By Cherie Suonvieri ’15, content specialist

January 11, 2019 | 4 p.m.

Rachel Nordberg '19, a double major in biology and psychology, has spent the past few years at Bethel seeing her passions for faith and science come together, especially when it comes to understanding the brain.

Rachel Nordberg '19, a double major in biology and psychology, has spent the past few years at Bethel seeing her passions for faith and science come together, especially when it comes to understanding the brain. (Photo courtesy of Nordberg)

Over the past three years, Rachel Nordberg ’19 has researched alongside not only her peers, but graduate students and renowned neuroscientists. She’s worked on answering questions like, “What does imagination look like in the brain?” and, “Is there a connection between face blindness and tone deafness?”

And then there’s the question of the Christian’s role in science. While science and Christianity have historically held a contentious relationship, Nordberg is continuously finding places these two passions of hers coalesce—particularly when it comes to understanding the brain. 

“You can see the brain as something you can use to explain away God,” Nordberg says. “But to me, the brain is one of the most incredible, beautiful, complicated parts of our bodies.”

Nordberg had long been interested in psychology, but coming to Bethel helped solidify her interest in neuroscience as well. Fascinated by the relationship between the two, she decided to major in both. “I wanted to know more about how what’s happening biologically affects a person psychologically, and to learn what to do with that,” Nordberg says.

“You can see the brain as something you can use to explain away God. But to me, the brain is one of the most incredible, beautiful, complicated parts of our bodies.”

— Rachel Nordberg ’19

In fall 2015, Nordberg began her first year at Bethel as a high school senior through the Post-Secondary Enrollment Options (PSEO) program. She was planning on attending a different college after high school graduation, when a conversation with Bethel Professor of Neuroscience Adam Johnson changed her mind.

He encouraged Nordberg to continue at Bethel, outlining a number of reasons including the proximity to other universities, the passion Bethel students have for strong academics, and the available research opportunities that she may not find at another school. “That was all something he felt that I would do well in and would love to be a part of,” Nordberg says.

Rachel Nordberg ’19 presents a poster at the Minnesota Undergraduate Psychology Conference, in spring 2017. The poster featured research from Professor of Neuroscience Adam Johnson’s lab.

Rachel Nordberg ’19 presents a poster at the Minnesota Undergraduate Psychology Conference, in spring 2017. The poster featured research from Professor of Neuroscience Adam Johnson’s lab.

And Johnson was right on all fronts—especially about the research opportunities. During the 2016-17 academic year, Nordberg worked as Johnson’s lab assistant, and the following summer she had the opportunity to be part of a collaborative project between Bethel University and Boston University, funded by a prestigious National Institute of Health (NIH) grant.

The grant enabled Johnson to take a group of Bethel students, including Nordberg, Diamond Jackson ’19, and Carrie Bell ’18, to spend the summer at Boston University, where they worked alongside post-doctoral researchers, graduate students, and renowned neuroscience researchers like Howard Eichenbaum and Marc Howard. “It’s actually very unusual for NIH to fund undergraduate students,” Professor of Psychology Joel Frederickson says. “And another thing that was great about this opportunity is that it was computational neuroscience, and Johnson brought three young women with him.” Neuroscience, like other scientific fields, has historically been led by a male majority, but in recent decades women’s involvement has been on the rise.

Research at Boston University involved recording a rat’s brain activity as it made its way through a maze. Different neurons fire in the rat’s brain depending on its location, Nordberg explains. If it’s in ‘Place A,’ a group of neurons corresponding to that place will fire. If it’s in ‘Place B,’ a different group will activate. “In Dr. Johnson’s previous research, he had realized that sometimes the place that you expect the rat to be, based on which neurons were firing is not actually where the rat is,” Nordberg says. “The question is, why? And the theory we were working to develop is that what we we’re seeing is actually imagination. We’re seeing the rat plan, look forward in time, and think about its options.”

Nordberg returned from Boston, and went into her third year at Bethel with not only notable research experience, but an increased motivation to pursue graduate school. Over that summer, Nordberg spoke with over 10 graduate students about their journeys, which she says made graduate school feel more accessible. “I saw that grad students are still people,” she says. “They’re still students, and they’re still learning about the field. Even the heads of the labs were still learning.”  

Now in her fourth and final year at Bethel, Nordberg is researching alongside Professor of Psychology Sherryse Corrow. With funding from an Edgren Scholarship award, Corrow and Nordberg are looking at prosopagnosia, a lifelong disorder in which individuals are unable to recognize faces. Nordberg says prosopagnosia occurs in 1 to 3% of the population, but few people know it exists, which means the individual’s inability to recognize people by their faces can sometimes lead to social consequences.

Face blindness tends to occur in the right hemisphere of the brain, so Corrow and Nordberg are testing the theory that if people have prosopagnosia, they could be predisposed to other conditions that exist in the right hemisphere—such as tone deafness.   

Reflecting on her research experiences to date, Nordberg says she’s enjoyed the juxtaposition between the work she did at Boston University and the work she’s doing back at Bethel. “The research with Dr. Johnson was statistics, mathematical models, brainwaves, and very specific neurons within the rat brain,” Nordberg says. “With Dr. Corrow, we’ve been able to work with people. It’s been a fun switch to see another side of research.”

“Seeing the detail that goes into the brain and how it works so well is more evident of the creator rather than evidence against.”

— Rachel Nordberg ’19

The steps Nordberg has taken along her chosen academic path have been largely influenced by her faith. “There’s often this feeling that you can only be one or the other, a Christian or a scientist,” Nordberg says. “Questions about science led me to a lot of questions about my faith, but there were people here who acknowledged that. They told me that I can do both things, which allowed me to feel like I could ask those questions and grow stronger in both faith and science because of it.”

And though holding both faith and science close can lead to many questions, for Nordberg this also reveals profound affirmations. “Seeing how you can make a map out of your cells and realizing that that’s going on right now—in my brain and in your brain—that’s just so incredible to me,” Nordberg says. “Seeing the detail that goes into the brain and how it works so well is more evident of the creator rather than evidence against.”

This spring, Nordberg will study abroad at the University of Oxford in England, and then she’ll graduate from Bethel in May. Nordberg plans to find a job at a mental health clinic to deepen her understanding of mental health disorders, and then apply to graduate school in the years that follow.

Study Neuroscience at Bethel.

Bethel’s B.S. in Neuroscience is an interdisciplinary major offered by the biology and psychology departments and includes chemistry, mathematics, and related courses. This intensely research-focused degree will prepare students for competitive graduate and medical schools and for success in their future career.

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