St. Olaf College | News

Student pursues two internships with one goal

JakeWesterbergJake Westerberg ’16 is spending his summer juggling two distinctly different research opportunities at the University of Minnesota: one at the Brain Sciences Center and the other at the Law School.

Though they seem dissimilar at first glance, these two experiences give Westerberg the opportunity to explore a fascinating area of study that brings psychology into the courtroom.

“I’m currently interested in investigating the efficiency and limits of cognitive functioning — especially memory — and the implications they have in real-world applications,” says Westerberg.

These two research experiences are the first steps toward his ultimate goal of better understanding cognitive neuroscience’s potential in the legal field.

Making connections
Westerberg’s journey began in December, when he decided to research possible summer internship opportunities that matched his interests. Before long, he discovered the work of two professors at the University of Minnesota — Associate Professor of Law Francis Shen and Assistant Professor of Neuroscience Matthew Chafee — and exchanged messages with them.

Impressed with his initiative, the professors offered him positions in their respective fields that, together, would work to enrich Westerberg’s interdisciplinary interests. With the support of internship funding from the St. Olaf Piper Center for Vocation and Career, Westerberg was able to accept both positions.

Juggling two internships means Westerberg’s day-to-day experiences are richly varied. His work with Shen at the U of M Law School entails reading through chapters of the professor’s forthcoming graduate-level textbook, Law and Neuroscience, while simultaneously developing a complementary website of online materials to assist future students. He also helps Shen reenact past court cases with 50-50 jury splits to observe how inserting a piece of neuroscientific evidence affects the outcome of the case.

Meanwhile, his work in Chafee’s lab is at the opposite end of the internship spectrum, giving Westerberg the chance to apply the complicated concepts he has studied with Shen in a hands-on setting.

“Lab work with Dr. Chafee is exhilarating and complicated to say the least,” says Westerberg. Writing and running data analysis programs for Chafee’s most recent study on schizophrenia, Westerberg also gets the chance to work on a project of his own that further explores cognitive deficits generated by the mental disorder.

Westerberg’s summer has proved to be an invaluable learning experience.

“I’m learning a great deal about specific concepts that you just don’t learn without doing research into it,” he says. “For anyone who wants to pursue a graduate program in the sciences, being part of a lab beforehand is a necessity.”

The rewards of research
Recognizing his academic passions early on led Westerberg to seek firsthand research experiences as soon as he arrived at St. Olaf. His initiative landed him the opportunity to conduct research alongside Associate Professor of Psychology Shelly Dickinson.

“The fact I was able to do research as a first-year student was incredibly rewarding and has definitely contributed to my success today,” Westerberg says.

His research experiences will not end with the beginning of the school year; in fact, he has two more internships lined up for fall semester in addition to a full course load. He will be working in St. Olaf Associate Professor of Psychology Gary Muir’s lab and as an off-site research assistant for the Cutrer Lab at the Mayo Clinic. Though he will remain on campus, Westerberg will be responsible for collecting genetic information from migraine sufferers across the state for the Cutrer Lab’s use, looking for patterns that may signify a genetic predisposition to the ailment.

But for now, Westerberg is staying busy with his summer research, making both scientific and personal discoveries every day.

“This is definitely the best summer I’ve ever had. I feel successful in both experiences, and I am definitely getting the most out of both of them. I wasn’t certain what I wanted to do post-Olaf, but now I’m sure I want to pursue graduate school in neuroscience.”