Sara Wasserman ’02 is the Kresa Family Assistant Professor of Neuroscience. She returned to campus as a faculty member in 2016. As a child visiting New York City in the summers, her responses to the smell of a hot pretzel and her interest in what motivated characters in the plays she saw sparked her curiosity about the brain and human behavior; in her current research, she examines how the brain drives contextually appropriate decision-making.

Wasserman was awarded the Kresa family endowed professorship, established in 2016 with a gift from Kiren Kresa-Reahl ’87 P’19, M.D., in 2018 for her distinction in science, leadership, innovation, and commitment to Wellesley College.

Q: How did your Wellesley liberal arts education affect your life after college?

A: I double majored in neuroscience and theater studies. In both disciplines, my professors provided me with multiple opportunities to practice problem solving, both independently and as part of a team. Whether it was developing a new protocol in the Beltz Lab or figuring out how to build an actual pool in the Ruth Nagel Jones Theater for a play I directed during my senior year, I had ownership over my own learning and my own failing. That implicitly told me that despite failing multiple times along the way, my professors trusted that I would figure it out. This is one of the biggest gifts I received as a student. It gave me the confidence to know that failure didn’t mean the end, and it didn’t mean I couldn’t do it. Comfort with failure has been an invaluable foundation for my career as a scientist, where more often than not, experiments don’t work the first time.

Q: What impact has philanthropy had on your work, your students, or your colleagues?

A: I was very honored to receive the Kresa family named chair. The financial support from this chair has allowed me to provide opportunities for students to participate in my research and enable them to travel to scientific conferences and present their work. This lets students see themselves as an active part of the scientific community and it is intergral to students deciding to pursue graduate studies in STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics) fields.

Q: Wellesley has shown a commitment to educating the next generation of scientists. How will the new Science Complex further that mission?

A: Throughout the design process, it has been clear that the classrooms and gathering spaces in the building have been designed with a focus on supporting opportunities for both collaboration and social interaction. Science has become more collaborative than ever, and we will continue to need to implement cross-disciplinary approaches to make progress. Whether it is through group projects in class or lab work, or discussions over coffee or tea at the Leaky Beaker, the design of the new Science Complex clearly demonstrates Wellesley’s commitment to supporting inclusive pedagogy that will prepare students for successful careers in STEAM fields.

Q: What do you enjoy most about working with Wellesley students?

A: I feel incredibly fortunate to get to work with and learn alongside Wellesley students in my lab. We push each other to do the things we weren’t sure we could do, and I am constantly amazed by the creative questions they ask and their fearless approach to learning.

Q: How do you involve students in your scientific research? What are some examples of recent student projects?

A: Students are involved in multiple aspects of research in the lab, depending on their interests and research goals. Recently, students have contributed to projects supported by a National Science Foundation grant awarded to the lab.

For example, Rachel Frazer ’20, Daniela Limbania ’21, Grace Turner ’21, and I embarked on a collaborative writing project with scientists from Harvard University, Willamette University, and Caltech as well as a professor of dance from The Ohio State University to develop, research, and write a perspective about the dynamic nature of communication between the body and the brain. The undergraduate authors provided invaluable contributions from the conception of the piece, to the research, and finally the writing and revisions. This manuscript was recently published.

Currently, Phia Honey ’24 is maintaining a collaboration with the Donlea Lab at UCLA, investigating the evolution of sleep across different species of fruit flies. Gianna Acosta ’23 and Avni Iyer ’23 are continuing to work on a project they started last summer along with Ann Xu ’22 to create short videos that aim to explore the basics of MATLAB [a programming language] and how fruit flies are used in neuroscience research. Stay tuned, the videos will be available on YouTube soon!

Finally, we are excited that some new students have joined the lab this year. They are helping to optimize some of our virtual reality flight simulators and are exploring how to use DeepLabCut, a program that will enable us to track the movement of walking flies in the lab.