Assistant Professor of Neuroscience Sally Bernardina Seraphin is a primate behavioral neuroscientist who joined the Trinity faculty in 2020 and was appointed to a tenure-track position in 2021. “I am also a Haitian-American, and I immigrated here as a child,” she said. “The combination of being a primate behavioral neuroscientist and a Haitian-American is rare.”
Seraphin’s interest in this field of study was sparked while taking a comparative psychology course as an undergraduate at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. “It really clicked once evolution was brought into the discussion of brain physiology and behavior; everything made sense,” she said.
This was Seraphin’s “light bulb moment” that inspired her to pursue further education and research in the field. Seraphin earned her master’s in human biology from Oxford University and her Ph.D. from Emory University, studying non-human primates as part of the founding cohort of graduate students in Emory’s Center for Behavioral Neuroscience. She completed three years of post-doctoral training at McLean Hospital and Harvard Medical School.
Seraphin is now hoping to provide similarly inspiring experiences for Trinity students. “I’m really excited to be part of undergraduate students’ ‘light bulb moments,’ sparking fires, and motivating them to go into areas of neuroscience that can actually impact the lives of the people in our community,” she said. “There’s nothing like seeing an individual finally have all of their studies culminate in a revelation about the universe.”
Read more about Seraphin’s background, research, and teaching at Trinity below:
What courses are you teaching at Trinity this academic year?
This semester [fall 2021] I’m teaching “Introduction to Neuroscience Methodology” and “Brain and Behavior.” Next semester [spring 2022] I’ll be teaching “Social Neuroscience” lecture and lab and also “Principles of Neuroscience.” I teach a lot of the core courses, but I also teach some advanced courses that take advantage of my specialty as a primate behavioral neuroscientist.
In addition to “Social Neuroscience,” I teach “Emotion and Motivation” as well as “Neurolaw,” which is an outgrowth of my interest in translating neuroscience for applications in social policy and public health. Neurolaw is an emerging discipline that integrates neuroscience findings into the legal and judicial process. I offered the first undergraduate neurolaw course at Centre College, where I was before, and then I offered it again at Trinity College. Not many law schools or graduate schools even offer neurolaw classes. I was able to teach it to Trinity students last January and will teach it again next year. It’s part of Trinity’s prison studies certificate program now.
What were you studying when you set up the first field-endocrinology laboratory in Uganda’s Budongo Forest as a master’s student?
In Budongo, I focused on chimpanzees in the wild and how their fecal hormones are associated with social or ecological factors. I was really interested in trying to study how exactly the physiology that you observe in adulthood may be related to physiology that’s developed in infancy and childhood as part of the interactions with caregivers.
What do you plan to research at Trinity? What research opportunities are available to students?
The things that I’ll be doing at Trinity that can include students include a wide array of studies that involve my comparative approach.
My new lab, which is still under construction at the moment, will take an evolutionary developmental neurobiology approach to studying stress. I have three research agendas. First, I will use fieldwork to look at how socioecological factors shape behavioral endocrinology in mother and infant primate pairs. Second, I will study the impact of early experience on brain dopamine in laboratory models of attachment. While I was at Emory doing my Ph.D., I was able to study how early experience shapes the development of brain dopamine and behavior in rhesus monkeys. The third part of my research agenda will explore biological markers of stress, neuropsychology, and brain imaging in people exposed to early maltreatment or adversity.
The whole comparative approach I’ll emphasize in my lab at Trinity takes advantage of my broad research methods training and experience with animal models—including everything from cell culture, to rodents, birds, monkeys, chimpanzees, and ultimately humans. Our three-pronged approach will accomplish a more holistic understanding of how early environment changes behavior and brain function and what can be done to optimize well-being.
I have had the pleasure of working with about a dozen research students at Trinity so far, and I am really excited about future opportunities to do more.
Could you talk about why you founded The Thinking Republic magazine and the importance of public engagement and interdisciplinary dialogue?
I’m deeply passionate about public health and about social equality, and I am a consumer of science. As a Black woman immigrant, I’m really mindful of the divide between the people who have access to knowledge, because they pay tuition, as opposed to the people who live in the margins and don’t benefit from that knowledge. So, I really wanted to create a way for my peers in the humanities and social sciences, as well as in STEM, to face outward for change, as opposed to for ourselves, and engage with the public.
Many of the contributors to The Thinking Republic are not academic professors or scholars but artisans and artists, or even college students. That’s what the website is about—thinking around topics of broad human concern in an inclusive way that promotes dialogue—so each of our issues have been centered on timely themes that people can relate to from multiple areas of focus, experience, and expertise.
Is there anything else you would like the Trinity community to know?
I am non-traditional in another way. Normally, after your postdoctoral training, people go right into research or teaching in a full-time job. I decided to step away and focus on mindfully parenting my children in a way that could disrupt a generational cycle of trauma. That meant taking about 10 years out—for the first five or so years just mothering, and then eventually teaching part-time a couple of days a week at the University of Tennessee.
It’s pretty unusual for a woman scientist to step away for an extended period of time and then come back, but this is an example of me doing what feels right and what fits with my passion and my goals, following a path that was unconventional. It was the best thing for me and my family and, ultimately, for my career, because I spent a lot of time synthesizing, which is not something that scientists often have an opportunity to do. I spent those 10 years reading and thinking about the field and formulating a theory that incorporates mathematical modeling to explain how so many aspects of early experience are distilled in the developing organism, resulting in predictable changes to brain and behavioral function.
Learn more about neuroscience at Trinity College here.