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Title: Assistant Professor
Best Office Artifact: Millennium Falcon mold
While studying as an undergrad, Carthage neuroscience professor Steven Henle realized just how complex the brain is. It was at that point he started down a path that led him to discover his life’s passion. Today he strives to provide Carthage students with the same skill and passion for research that he acquired throughout his education.
Professor Henle received a Ph.D. in Molecular Neuroscience from the Mayo Graduate School before going on to complete postdoctoral fellowships at the Harvard Medical School and the Medical College of Wisconsin.
We spoke with Professor Henle about his extensive research into zebrafish cells, his journey to Carthage, and hobbies outside of the lab.
How did you become interested in Neuroscience?
“I can’t pinpoint an event, but I was studying biology and chemistry in college and just had a realization. I realized that everything I was learning about at the molecular scale also controls what we think, like, and remember. How the brain worked at the smallest scale just seemed so unknown, and I wanted to know more.”
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“The further along I went in my career, the more I realized that I wanted to be involved in teaching undergraduates at an institution that really cared about teaching…”
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What was your journey to becoming a professor at Carthage like? Why did you choose Carthage?
“I went to a small liberal arts college in Minnesota (St. John’s University) and graduated not knowing exactly if I wanted to focus on research or teaching. However, I knew I was really passionate about science, and in particular neuroscience, so I went to grad school at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota for molecular neuroscience. I worked on studying spinal cord development and regeneration in frogs. I then went to Harvard Medical School for a postdoctoral fellowship studying the genetics of eye development in mice and then to another fellowship at the Medical College of Wisconsin studying mostly what I work on now. The further along I went in my career, the more I realized that I wanted to be involved in teaching undergraduates at an institution that really cared about teaching, as well as a place that would still let me do some research. I applied to several schools, but Carthage was very appealing because I had already begun teaching here at night, so I knew the students and faculty were great.”
What were some unexpected paths that you took in your career so far?
“After grad school, I was applying for fellowships and had sort of accepted a position only to find out a bit later that the funding for the position had been taken away. It turned out that the funding came from someone who made a lot of money in the Bernie Madoff Ponzi scheme. Since we had already planned to move to Boston at this point, I had to scramble to find another position and ended up applying to a lab I didn’t really know. In the end, though, that lab was great and I loved my time there.”
At Carthage, you have been interested in studying zebrafish. Could you explain a little bit about your research into the fish and what you are hoping to accomplish or discover?
“I study how the zebrafish eye develops and regenerates. The fish are transparent when young, so we can see inside as they develop. I use a lot of microscopy techniques to do this, and I am trying to develop new techniques to see into the cells of the eye as they develop. Also, the fish can regenerate their eyes after injury, but humans can’t and I want to know what’s different. I’m hoping that maybe this can help figure out how to restore sight. Maybe if we can make our eyes a bit more like fish eyes, they will be able to regenerate.”
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“Collecting data and advancing our understanding of the science is important, but I think the real value is that it lets students start doing real work while experiencing real problems and overcoming them.”
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As a 2019 SURE faculty mentor, what value do you see in the Program’s faculty-mentored undergraduate research for Carthage students? What do you hope they take away from working with you?
“Collecting data and advancing our understanding of the science is important, but I think the real value is that it lets students start doing real work while experiencing real problems and overcoming them. I hope, in particular, that they understand that just because they don’t know how to do something doesn’t mean they can’t do it, even if no one else has ever done it before.”
How have you pushed students beyond their comfort zones?
“In classes, students tend to work on projects that tend to have a pretty straight path from beginning to end. When working with research students, and especially in SURE, I make sure to give them projects that are less well-defined so they have to create their own path. I think most students don’t know how capable they are yet, so this is a bit uncomfortable and frustrating. However, getting past these difficult points on their own can really boost a student’s confidence.”
What are some hobbies or interests you have that may be surprising to students?
“I enjoy photography, but the students who know how much I like microscopy won’t be surprised. Although I don’t have much time for them right now, I enjoy video games and have a decent collection of older games. Also, to completely out myself as a nerd, I enjoy playing D&D (Dungeons and Dragons) with my family when we get together.”
What is your favorite class to teach?
“Since I’m still pretty new I haven’t had a chance to teach that many different courses, but I have really enjoyed teaching both the intro biology course (Molecules, Cells, and Organisms or Phage Hunters) and Intro to Behavioral Neuroscience. I have spent so many years diving deep into specific fields that getting to look at the big picture of these topics is a breath of fresh air.”
What advice do you have for new or prospective students interested in neuroscience? Anything you wish you would have known as an undergrad?
“The brain is complicated, like really complicated. There are always debates about if we are physically able to understand how our own brain works. So if you really want to understand the brain, you will probably need to use the tools of math, statistics, and computer science. If you know something about psychology, biology, and have those analytical tools, you can do a lot, and quite a few opportunities will be open to you.”
— Interview by Madeline Paakkonen ’21, Photos by Jenna Link ’22