Mapping the mind: Dr. Katharine Cammacks connects neuroscience expertise with her passion for the classroom

Pictured: Dr. Katharine Cammacks. Photo courtesy of sewanee.edu.

By Anna Püsök
Contributing Writer

Dr. Katharine Cammack, assistant professor of psychology and neuroscience, was born and grew up in a suburb of Seattle, Washington. After receiving a B.S. in Psychology from Santa Clara University, she went to the New York City area. She obtained her Ph.D. in Integrative Neuroscience from Rutgers University. She completed her postdoctoral training at the Rockefeller University and Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

She became interested in the field of neuroscience after always having an interest “in exploring why and how individuals differ from each other, [and] these questions always led me back to questions related to how our brains might process information differently.”

While in school, she took as many courses related to neuroscience as she could to understand the field. “I also researched with one of my professors, who was trained as a behaviorist. They traditionally believe that the brain is irrelevant and all that matters is an individual’s behavior,” she explained. “But, to me, exploring the brain seemed like such an opportunity for discovery.”

While having philosophy classes in her undergraduate college, she had a professor who encouraged her to become a teacher. 

The neuroscientists she trained with were interested in a research-career at a large university. She was always interested in teaching small classes, having more personal connections with the students and the faculty, and running small research lab, like here in Sewanee.  

“Because I didn’t have many like-minded colleagues that enjoyed teaching, I felt a bit like a fish out of water in graduate school and during my postdoctoral training,” she said. “So, I’d sneak away from lab to teach college classes in the evenings. It was my favorite part of each day.” 

She came to Sewanee because the neuroscience program was new and allowed her the opportunity to help develop the structure of the program. She has been a member of the faculty since 2015, and has enjoyed her time here since then. Cammack emphasized that students “often make connections that I hadn’t thought about in the same way before, and that is always such an enjoyable learning experience for me.”

Cammack has always been involved in many activities besides studying. When she was in college, she babysat, worked in coffee shops, and interned in different labs, “In one of those labs, at Stanford, I transcribed and coded interviews with eighth grade students about how they thought about success in mathematics.” 

“It made me realize that, often times, people can have relatively rigid ways of thinking about their abilities in a particular subject.” She continued, “That idea stuck with me, and it informs how I think about my classes. Anyone can tackle a subject successfully, it just requires an open, flexible mindset and a willingness to struggle at times.” 

This enthusiasm remains with her to this day too, “Now, I have two young boys, one who is 16 months old and the other who is almost four years old. They are very active and also like being outdoors, so we go on a lot of hikes and walks together.”

Cammack explains how neuroscience “provides us with a valuable opportunity to better understand who we are and how we interact with the world. From my perspective, life is short and it’s exciting to learn as much as we can about ourselves in the brief time that we have on this planet.” Since neuroscience is a new field, she thinks that it leaves many questions to be answered.

In a final thought, The Purple asked Cammack if there was anything she would recommend students, current or future, to do. She replied that ”if students are interested in getting a bit more involved in a field, whether neuroscience or something else, I’d encourage them to have a conversation with some faculty members in that field. Faculty are often working on vibrant, exciting research projects that students can get involved with.” 

She went on to say, “Even if their research questions don’t perfectly reflect your interests, it might offer a valuable opportunity to learn more about the ways that research can be performed in that field, which might reveal or help develop some of your own research interests to pursue at Sewanee or elsewhere.”  

Cammack concluded that “undergraduate research is a wonderful opportunity to hone your critical thinking and professional skills, which can translate to any number of different jobs or career paths.”

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