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Nicole Swann outside the Helen Mills Neuroscience Institute University Medal finalist Nicole Swann outside the Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute, where she has worked in Robert Knight's lab for three years. (BAP photos)

Brainy double major Nicole Swann seeks to connect neurobiology to human behavior

– Given her extraordinarily focused undergraduate career at UC Berkeley, it's somewhat surprising to learn that University Medal finalist Nicole Swann didn't always want to be a scientific researcher. Born to two University of Texas psychology professors in Austin, Swann "somewhat rebelliously" resisted the sciences at first, spending her first three years of high school concentrating on theater and debate. That all changed when she took an honors Biology II class.

"I realized this was something I could be interested in for the rest of my life," she says.

The University Medal
Established in 1871 by California Governor Henry Huntly Haight, the University Medal honors UC Berkeley's most distinguished graduating senior. Three to five students are also named as finalists.

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And when Swann gets interested in something, she doesn't mess around. Soon she had founded a biology club at Westlake High School, leading biology field trips to the university, and being named "Most Likely To Cure Cancer" by her fellow graduating seniors. While they might have had the disease wrong — Swann's path is more likely to lead her to find help for neurological illnesses like Parkinson's and Alzheimer's — her classmates' confidence seems well founded.

At Berkeley, Swann has double majored in psychology and molecular and cell biology. "Psychology keeps me grounded when I find myself losing track of what I'm studying," she says. "Bringing behavior into the brain helps me see how biology relates to real life."

Her focus on neurobiology was inspired by the plight of her aunt Karen. Karen suffered from a genetic disorder called Williams Syndrome, resulting from a rare chromosomal abnormality not diagnosed until Karen was in her 30s. Although she had an IQ of just 52 and lived with her father until she died of complications from the disease, "she had amazing social instincts and could give these incredibly moving speeches at weddings," recalls Swann. She says if Karen had been diagnosed earlier, her quality of life could have been much improved: it is now known that people with Williams have a special appreciation for music and can learn to play instruments.

"Growing up in a house of psychologists, I couldn't help but be interested in how people interact," she explains. "Karen played a big part in getting me to see that the biological aspect of behavior was equally important."

In her sophomore year at Berkeley, Swann set out to find a lab to work in. "I wanted to meet some of the people whose brains I was studying," she jokes. She was accepted in Professor Robert Knight's cognitive neuroscience research laboratory, part of the Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute and department of psychology. She was the youngest of the roughly 10 undergraduates on the team.

 Nicole Swann  in rainbow hat
'If I had an experiment that had to be done with animals, I would do it. If it were something that could save the life of humans, it would be justifiable to me.'
-Nicole Swann

"I typically don't take undergraduates in the laboratory until their junior year, but something seemed different about Nicki," wrote Knight in his letter recommending Swann for the University Medal. "This decision was amply rewarded by the incredible contribution she has made."

For the next three years, Swann put in 10 to 15 hours a week — or more — in Knight's lab, which studies how different parts of the brain work together, taking only a one-month break during the summer. She learned how to record electrophysiological signals from human subjects using electroencephalograms (EEGs). Her group was looking at the neural mechanisms underlying motor control, essentially how the brain prepares for the body to make voluntary movements. Not only did she gain valuable technical hands-on experience in the lab, but she is also listed as co-author on three abstracts and a co-author on two papers about to be submitted — most remarkable for an undergraduate.

In addition, she has been able to conduct her own research for a senior honors thesis. Using EEGs she has taken of undergraduate subjects' brains, she is testing whether the amount of communication between two areas in the brain's frontal cortex has any relation to how accurately the subjects performed on a timed movement test. "My hypothesis is that there is increased communication between the supplementary motor area and the primary motor area prior to an accurate movement," she says, explaining that disappointingly, the data indicates such is not the case. And while she prefers the thrill of discovery, naturally, "the disappointment of being wrong after so many long hours of work is equally part of being a scientist," she wrote in her University Medal essay.

Despite her commitment to the lab, Swann has managed to maintain a 3.976 grade point average and to find time to volunteer with local animal groups. (She also runs or swims "pretty much every day.") Her animal work is a kind of karmic insurance. Although she has not done so yet, she anticipates that at some point, she may have to conduct experiments on animals. Many classic neuroscience studies have used animals — dogs, cats, rats, she points out. "If I had an experiment that had to be done with animals, I would do it," Swann says. "If it were something that could save the life of humans, it would be justifiable to me. That might be 'speciesist,' but every species is biased toward its own. If you treat the animals with respect and care, I believe it's OK."

Swann has cared for many animals already, as a volunteer with the Berkeley Animal Shelter, walking dogs and socializing cats. She has also fostered litters of orphaned kittens, for a group called Hopalong, until they were ready to be adopted. Her volunteer work has resulted in a significant increase in pet ownership by students and staff in neuroscience, according to Knight. Although it is hard to say goodbye to the kittens, Swann herself has so far resisted keeping any; her sole permanent pet is a gecko named Synapse. He'll go with her to UC San Diego, where she intends to get her Ph.D. in neuroscience.

Asked what advice she has for undergraduates, she says to find a laboratory whose work grabs you, and to be persistent even if the professor is not immediately welcoming.

"If you're really dedicated and know you'll stick with it and do a good job, then don't be discouraged," she urges. "Go to office hours and show them that you're truly interested, not just trying to get a good recommendation letter, because that annoys them. Don't work in a lab unless you're prepared to pull your weight."

Genuine interest is more important than knowledge, she adds: "When I first started I hardly knew anything about neuroscience, but I just kept asking my postdocs, 'What's the goal of this experiment, why do we do it this way.' I learned a lot, and I think having to explain their work to me was helpful to them, too. I feel really fortunate to have found a lab that gave me those kind of opportunities."