From the first time she toured Mercer University, Bryana Whitaker knew it was the university for her. She was drawn to the small student-to-faculty ratio, emphasis on undergraduate research and the kindness of the people she encountered, including President William D. Underwood, whom she ran into on campus with his dog, Cricket.
Whitaker, who is from LaFayette, dove headfirst into research opportunities her freshman year and has proven herself to be an asset and a leader in the lab since then. This spring, the neuroscience and creative writing double-major was one of three Mercer students awarded the prestigious Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship, which recognizes undergraduates in science, mathematics and engineering. Dakota Ellis was previously profiled in a Den story, and Ryan Brownlee will be featured in the future.
Whitaker has worked in the lab of Dr. Joshua Rodefer, assistant professor of neuroscience and psychology, since the spring of 2021. His lab focuses on the interactions of behavioral pharmacology and neuroscience. Whitaker has been involved in projects looking at how different cleaning agents used on cages during trials affect rodents; how drugs that block brain receptors might alter memory and mimic depression; and the attentional set-shifting task in different genetic strains of rodents.
She also conducted a comprehensive literature review with Dr. Rodefer on the role of reproductive hormones on the development and progression of schizophrenia, which was published in the North American Journal of Psychology. A co-authored publication is a “a great accomplishment for any student,” Dr. Rodefer said. Whitakever said this project helped her discover a personal interest in neuroendocrine research.
“Bryana has been a great student since the beginning,” Dr. Rodefer said. “She has a great combination of diverse interests, independence, motivation and wanting to contribute to the research team environment. I think one of the things that sets her apart from others is her double major in creative writing and neuroscience — and as such, she brings wordsmith skills to the table that help in writing up research and in the dissemination of our results.”
Whitaker participated in the 2022 Blazer BRAIN (Broadening Representation and Inclusion in Neuroscience) Undergraduate Summer Program at University of Alabama-Birmingham (UAB). She worked with Dr. Keith McGregor on a project that involved comparing MRI images of the brains of adults with subjective cognitive decline to people who are considered cognitively normal.
Whitaker said she had been debating between pursuing an M.D. or Ph.D. after finishing her undergraduate degree, but this summer experience made her realize she wanted a career in research and that her next step “was Ph.D. all the way.”
“Even though I’m really interested in how different brain diseases impact the patient population, I realized that I wanted to learn more about the root cause and tackle these issues there,” she said.
Whitaker’s undergraduate research has led her to presentations at Mercer’s BEAR Day, the SoCon Undergraduate Research Forum, the Southeastern Psychological Association conference in New Orleans and the annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minoritized Scientists in Anaheim, California.
In addition to her academic responsibilities, Whitaker has been involved in Phi Eta Sigma national honor society and Nu Rho Psi neuroscience honor society. She served as president of both of these school chapters during her junior year.
Whitaker said she wouldn’t be where she is today without the mentorship and opportunities provided by Dr. Rodefer at Mercer and Dr. McGregor at UAB. She decided to apply for the Goldwater Scholarship for the experience — since her future career will involve applying for research funding — and to see how her research compared to that of her peers. She said it was a wonderful and emotional moment when she learned she had been awarded the scholarship.
“(It was) that gratification of seeing 2 1/2 years of really hard work and balancing research against these other things at Mercer pay off,” she said. “It reaffirmed my choice in selecting Mercer, that by choosing these programs and majors I was able to become a competitive student.”
Whitaker hopes to enroll in UAB’s neuroscience Ph.D. program after she graduates from Mercer and one day conduct her own neuroendocrine research and teach.
“It’s my hope that once I get my Ph.D., I can become a member at an academic institution where I can teach at the undergraduate and graduate level but also conduct research,” she said. “I want to build a lab that can welcome undergrads like me … and give the same opportunities to the generation after me.”