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Psychology professor says undergraduate research paves way for future success

Lisa Savage, associate professor and director of graduate studies in psychology, credits the opportunity to do research — early and often— for keeping her career as an academician and researcher on the fast track.

That’s why Savage is eager to provide her students with similar research experiences. In her courses on the neurobiology of behavior, conditioning and learning, and the effects of drugs and alcohol on behavior, Savage ensures that undergraduates are immediately introduced to the world of research. Though many of her classes are large lectures, she always tries to build in time to work one-on-one with students in the laboratory.

“That’s how they learn their strengths and weaknesses,” she said. “They should do everything in the laboratory that a graduate student does…all aspects of a project.”

Savage speaks highly of the undergraduate research experience at Binghamton.

“Students have access to research here like no other place I’ve seen before,” she said. Like elsewhere in life, those who put the most into the experience usually get the most out of it, she added.

The best proof of that statement is probably written in the successful career tracks of many of her past students, she said. Savage keeps in touch with a number of former students and knows that they often go on to medical or veterinarian school, or pursue graduate studies in neuroscience and psychology.

A native of Minnesota, Savage earned her BS from the University of Minnesota at Duluth. As an undergraduate of Native American and German descent, she participated in a program there called Minority Access to Research Careers (MARC), which is similar to Harpur College’s Bridges to the Baccalaureate program. Through that experience, she worked in a physiology lab and studied the effect of metabolites of alcohol on the electro-physiology properties of the cell.

As Savage’s work progressed in the physiology lab in Duluth, she decided to expand her studies to a more complex system and found the perfect fit in psychology, she said.

“Psychology is the study of behavior,” she said. “Learning and memory is one large component. Scientifically, people think studying behavior is easy, but it’s hard because behaviors are so complex.”

After earning her PhD from the University of Minnesota at Minneapolis, Savage spent two years in the Department of Neurology Research at the Veterans Administration Medical Center in San Diego. She came to Harpur College in 1995.

Her specialty is animal models of memory disorders. Specifically, she studies which behaviors are altered by memory damage from diseases such as alcoholism and Alzheimer’s. Her research is funded in part by the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation.

“The end goal of my research is to develop both behavioral and neurochemical strategies to reduce the debilitating cognitive/memory dysfunction associated with alcohol-related neurological disorders,” Savage said.

Toward that end, she spent the past summer at the University of Illinois learning a new technique to study how different regions of the brain communicate with one another. Individually and in collaboration with her students, Savage has published extensively on the effects of drugs and alcohol on the brain.

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