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Annual Message from Our PhD Program Director

-January 2024-

Frédéric Theunissen

Frédéric E. Theunissen
Director, Neuroscience PhD Program (2023-present)
Professor of Psychology

I am delighted to be the new director of our graduate program. I have inherited a program that I am proud to tell everyone is the best run graduate program on campus; a testament of the dedication of our faculty and administrative staff to excellence. I am particularly indebted to Michael Silver for the guidance he provided during our transition, to the training grant director, Dan Feldman, for all his contributions, and to our outstanding Neuroscience Graduate Program Manager, Leleña Avila without whom we would all be completely lost and overwhelmed. Her organizational skills combined with her dedication to the financial, emotional and academic health of our students is something that we are all grateful for. In fall of 2023, Leleña won the Advising Innovation Award for An individual or team who has exhibited creativity and innovation in providing effective and welcoming advising and/or student services.” In Jan 2024, Leleña received a Spot Award from the administration In Recognition of Special Accomplishments that Foster Values Important to the Campus. It is difficult to imagine someone more deserving of these praises. In late 2023, we also welcomed Peony Yu, our new Graduate Program Coordinator, to the student advising team. Peony has already worked diligently with Leleña to organize our interview and recruitment visits for the entering class of 2024. Thank you Peony!

For 2024, I wish all of us a productive and happy year. We have gone through a couple of significant bumps in prior years, and we are still feeling the repercussions of the Covid pandemic and of the labor strike. The labor strike has clearly been a lesson in labor/employer relationships and our students have had to master the art of negotiation and compromise. They have also participated as part of this process in improving not only their own financial well-being and work-life balance but also that of future students. Our funding model and the unique status of graduate students as both students and paid researchers created complex situations and relations that clearly do not fit easily along traditional labor-employer relationships and required quite a bit of flexibility. Again, we were grateful to have Leleña who is still helping us to smooth all the bumps in this process! We had all something to learn and we all grew from these life changing experiences.

Neuroscience PhD Program entering class of 2023. Photo by Shoey Sindel.

In 2024, we will inaugurate our own Department of Neuroscience. This is a significant achievement that involved long-term efforts from many, but that could not have been possible without the leadership of Dan Feldman, the inaugural chair of our department. For our graduate students, the new department will provide additional opportunities for teaching in a wide range of neuroscience courses and for mentoring undergraduate students. The department will also be a center for additional social and academic activities for our neuroscience community. I am looking forward to seeing the new collaborations that will emerge from these interactions. I also know that we can count on the contributions of our current graduate students for creative initiatives as we build-up the new department. The Neuroscience graduate program will also preserve its affiliation with the Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute, which will remain an interdisciplinary research unit involving many additional departments on campus. It is a win-win situation for our current and future students who will benefit from both affiliations. 

6 smiling students standing on a trail by water, with fall foliage in the background.

Some of our first-year students at Lake Tahoe, attending their first Berkeley Neuroscience Conference in fall 2023. Photo by Frédéric Theunissen.

Our students are continuing to impress us by their achievements in 2023. We would like to congratulate Odilia Lu who won the inaugural Alper Fellowship. This new fellowship honors students whose research addresses the causes and/or suggests treatments of mental health conditions including major depression, anxiety, or closely related illnesses. We also congratulate Makenzie Wilkinson who was awarded the Berkeley Fellowship and Aryanna Layden who was awarded the Chancellor’s Fellowship. Our graduate students also continue to excel at securing graduate fellowships from the National Science Foundation. Congratulations to our new NSF GRFP recipients: Gergey Mousa, Dyana Muller, Allison Nieto, and Eduardo Sandoval. Finally, hats off also to Benjamin Parker and Eduardo Sandoval for successfully implementing a funding and mentoring initiative designed to get under-represented undergraduates involved in research. Their initiative uses the “Learning Aligned Employment Program” or LEAP, a California state funded program that allows eligible students to be placed in a paid educationally beneficial position that relates to the student’s area of study or career objective. The LEAP program initiated by our own neuroscience grad students, placed 8 undergraduate students in laboratories this spring. Nice work Benjamin and Eduardo!

4 graduates surrounded by 6 faculty, all wearing graduation regalia.

Some of our graduates at spring 2023 commencement, along with professors Friedrich Sommer, Dan Feldman, Michael Silver, Joni Wallis, Marla Feller, and Ehud Isacoff. Photo by GradImages.

The whole program extends a warm welcome to our first-year students: Haidyn Bulen, Faye Clever, Angel Garcia, Jessica Murray, Caroline He, Carolyn Irving, Aryanna Layden, Vidhi Sinha and Makenzie Wilkinson. I have enjoyed getting to know you and look forward to our future interactions.

And finally, please join me in proudly congratulating our recently minted Ph.D. students: Bill Croughan, Molly LaPoint, Dariya Bakshinskaya, Celia Ford, and Matt Davis. We wish you all the best in your future endeavors! You can learn about some of their research discoveries, future plans, and advice to current students in our 2023 Q&A with the graduates

Happy new year everyone and may the creative muse be with you!

Frédéric Theunissen