Ayers ’08 Finds a Discipline, Direction and Home at Arcadia

By schwartzsa | March 7, 2012

Luke Ayers ’08 is conducting rare translational research that applies principles of human studies in anxiety behavior to rodent models, en route to a Ph.D. in Behavioral Neuroscience at University of Delaware. “My research provides a great deal of opportunity for expanding our understanding of human conditions through animal research,” says Ayers. Upon completing the advanced degree, he plans to transition into a research and teaching position.

As a high school student visiting Arcadia, Ayers knew he had found the right fit. Delighted by the personal and friendly campus atmosphere. And although it would take him several years to realize the full impact student-faculty research would have in his life, he was confident that Arcadia would help him choose the right course of study. Sure enough, after taking Introduction to Psychology with Dr. Barbara Nodine, Professor and Chair of Psychology, Ayers discovered the discipline that would drive his career.

“Dr. Nodine shows an enthusiasm for the field that’s really compelling—she got me excited about psychology as a scientific pursuit.” Ayers didn’t waste any time. He spent three of his four years at Arcadia conducting independent studies, which were primarily overseen his academic adviser Dr. Steve Robbins, Professor of Psychology, and his mentor, Dr. Josh Blustein, Professor of Psychology. Blustein personally taught him the ropes with both hands-on laboratory work as well as his specialty as a behavioral pharmacologist. “This dynamic duo was an unbelievable resource for me and my fellow students—they gave us the freedom to explore our own ideas while providing solid guidance and support,” he says.

“I was given the responsibility of deciding my own fate,” says Ayers, remarking on being encouraged to ask empirical questions and design experimental approaches to find the answers. Dr. Blustein guided him in how to think and work hard like a scientist—from refining questions and planning experiments, to supervising lab work and teaching data analysis and interpretation.

Ayers says the most essential aspect of Arcadia’s Psychology program is its requirement that all second-year students conduct their own laboratory research. “What is truly unique about this experience is that we the students were asked to come up with our own questions and design proper studies to find the answers,” says Ayers. “I found out later this is fairly rare compared to many of my friends who went to other schools. If other universities offer research experience at all it is often in the form of over-simplified, cookie-cutter replications of famous works. In Arcadia’s psych department we were allowed to explore our own interests so long as we based our work on solid scientific principles.”

In addition to conducting research, Ayers was part of the Honors program and assumed leadership positions on campus. He studied in Scotland through Arcadia’s First Year Study Abroad Experience program; traveled to Greece during an Honors course; participated in Psi Chi, Arcadia’s Psychology honors society, and PEERS; and served as a Resident Assistant.

Admittedly, it is just now, as Ayers pursues a Doctor of Psychology degree, that he is able to fully recognize the impact of his experience at Arcadia. Though the experiments Ayers conducts today are almost nothing like the ones he conducted as an undergraduate student, he says, “the skills that came with that early experience set me far ahead of the curve in my new work and I was quickly able to work independently in my lab and much sooner than many in my department.”

Rather than emphasize fact memorization, the department values qualities such as independence, confidence, interpersonal communication and collaboration, critical thinking, including humility, Ayers notes. “All of this occurs in the process of giving undergraduates practical research experience in their desired field. A student with those qualities and that experience has an unbelievable edge in applying to both jobs and graduate programs. I know many people in my field who say, albeit quietly, that they don’t look twice at graduate applicants who lack that research experience or who don’t display those qualities. I feel my own successes are truly due to my experience in that program.”