n the wall of assistant professor John Christianson’s office hangs a picture of a divi tree from the coast of Aruba. Taken by Christianson himself, the black and white image shows the divi tree’s thin, windswept branches, tangled together as they dart in different directions.
Photography is Christianson’s favorite and most expensive hobby, other than music. When he’s not working at Boston College teaching psychology courses, conducting research projects, or launching the new neuroscience major, he can be found capturing the beautiful scenes of nature, squinting behind the lens of a camera.
“Trees have a lot in common with neurons,” Christianson said. “Neurons have a base called the soma, and projections called neurites that extend out into the space and interact with other cells. … So I find that getting out into nature, and trying to see things from another lens—literally, with a camera—is an interesting way to keep my mind open and flexible to what’s possible in the brain.”
Christianson grew up in Connecticut and earned an undergraduate degree in psychology from Susquehanna University, located in the idyllic Selinsgrove, Pa. While taking the introductory courses for his major, such as Introduction to Psychology and Research Methods in Psychology, one of Christianson’s professors, James Misanin, recommended he get involved in scientific research.
At a small, liberal arts university like Susquehanna, Christianson remembers being unsure of what “research” actually meant. He was primarily interested in the clinical aspect of psychology—at the time, Christianson thought he would work as a counselor after graduation.
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Misanin had been conducting his research on the psychological phenomenon known as conditioned taste aversion, which describes how an animal connects specific food tastes to symptoms resulting from consuming a rancid substance. This taste aversion usually occurs when the subject consumes food and experiences nausea or vomiting afterward.
“If you were to say, go to Mac—it’s taken me six years to get over there—if you go to Mac, and you order something, it’s maybe an unusual item on the menu and then later you get sick, you’re like, ‘Oh, it must have been the cajun catfish at the buffet, I won’t have that again,’” Christianson said. “Well, it could have actually been that the milk or something was bad, but you’ve had lots of milk, so you don’t associate it.”
Christianson quickly developed a knack for the research, which didn’t go unnoticed by Misanin. He recommended that Christianson attend graduate school to get his Ph.D. in an area of psychology that piqued his interest. What fascinated Christianson the most was how human emotion relates to aspects of physiology—so, he spontaneously applied to several graduate programs that included this subject matter and awaited their responses. When Christianson received rejection letters from each of these programs, he wasn’t too fazed.
“I didn’t think through most of it,” Christianson said. “In the meantime, I kind of thought, well—I was a musician,” Christianson said. “I’m gonna go, maybe try the music thing out.”
Shortly after, however, there was a last-minute opening at the University of New Hampshire. So during his senior week at Susquehanna, Christianson visited UNH and made the decision to attend. Five years later—in 2006—he received his degree in physiological psychology—the field now known as behavioral neuroscience.
Christianson’s next stop was the University of Colorado, where he served as a research associate and postdoctoral fellow for seven years. The lab he worked in was primarily concerned with understanding the neurobiology of stress vulnerability and resilience. Similar to animals who have coping mechanisms in response to various stressors, such as predators, scarcity of food, and changing environments, humans undergo behavioral changes as a result of stress—and have very different ways of responding to it.
“We were particularly interested in tackling this question from both ends,” he said. “So, when an animal—or person—is exposed to stress, what [are] the alarm signals? What organizes our response? How do we rise to the challenge?”
In 2013, Christianson brought this research to Chestnut Hill when he was hired as an assistant professor of psychology—in 2016, he was named the Gianinno Family Sesquicentennial Associate Professor of Psychology, the position he currently holds. Because of the importance of psychology research in developing new drug treatments, many projects within the field are funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Christianson was able to continue the research he had been conducting at the University of Colorado, due to a large grant he had received from the NIH while working there.
“I was kind of growing up and getting ready to be a professor,” Christianson said. “I never actually dreamed of being a professor or anything, it [was] just kind of, that was the trail I was on and things kind of kept going well—so I use the analogy of just adjusting my sails to the wind that’s blowing.”
Located in Higgins 540, The Christianson Lab conducts multiple lines of research, headed by Christianson and supported by a staff of undergraduate research assistants, graduate students, and postgraduates. The first relates to stress resilience in rodents—the lab studies how rats tell the difference between what’s safe and what’s dangerous, as well as the brain mechanisms that underlie these predictions.
“You think about an animal that’s going into an environment, where, you’ve got a rat, and a hawk comes by—or, I should say eagle at BC—it survives, and it goes ‘I’m not going back there again, and if I ever have to, I’m going to be extra careful,’” Christianson said.
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The other line of research studies how rodents use social information to understand the location of danger and safety in the environment. The lab conducts these experiments by putting three rats into a cage. Two of the rats will make the determination that their new environment is safe since they were just moved there from their home cage. The third rat, however, will have just undergone a scary experience—such as an electric shock—prior to going into the new cage with the other two.
“We put them into a little box, they’re not really in a jail cell—it’s this little arena that the subject of the experiment can then go, ‘Who are you?’” Christianson said. “‘Who should I affiliate with?’—and you’re not even going to believe me when I tell you what they do—they’re just like people.”
Christianson makes this comparison because if the subjects are adolescent rats, they will be more receptive to the third rat’s stress. But if they’re all adults, the first two rats will ignore the third rat after determining that it’s stressed. Similarly, humans are much more likely to help a child in distress than an agitated adult they don’t know.
In the spring of 2014, Christianson began to dig deeper into this phenomenon alongside then-doctoral student and National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellow Morgan Rogers-Carter and then-undergraduate student Anne Pierce by studying the role oxytocin plays in the mediation of social behaviors by the insular cortex, or insula. The insular cortex is a region of the brain which helps process emotions and senses, and aids the regulation of homeostasis. Rogers-Carter, who was integral to the research’s success, explained their findings.
“Specifically, we found that the insula contains a really dense distribution of receptors for a molecule called oxytocin, which is really interesting because oxytocin is a social peptide, and mediates social behaviors across species,” Rogers-Carter said. “By seeing this, [we] thought that perhaps the insula mediated something social and for our work we unveiled that it’s necessary for these social behaviors in response to emotional states.”
Due to the fact that this area of study was both unexplored and relatively different than the projects Christianson was used to working on, it was much more difficult for him to receive funding.
Then Christianson was awarded an R01.
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R01s are multi-million dollar grants and are some one of the most prestigious and selective grants offered in all of scientific research. Christianson’s grant is a $2 to $3 million dollar grant, funding a particular project in the investigator’s area of expertise, typically in three- to five-year increments. Christianson and his lab had depended on several other funding sources to keep their research afloat, mostly concerning stressor controllability and resilience—an area Christianson had devoted much of his career to and had more credibility in. After publishing his, Rogers-Carter’s, and Pierce’s findings on social behavior and the insula in the academic journal Nature Neuroscience last February, Christianson applied for the grant in June, and the money from the NIH arrived in April of this year.
“When we first discovered this insula-oxytocin social connection, I felt like we had a phenomenon that was interesting enough and had an application to human research that would make it appealing for funding from the National Institutes of Health,” Christianson said. “The insular cortex was ripe for discovery, really uncharted territory.”
Around the same time that Christianson received the grant money, he became a BC tenured professor after a long process that involved applying for a promotion and putting together a portfolio of his work, as well as numerous letters of recommendation from colleagues across the country.
“The protection that comes with tenure means that BC’s stuck with me now, for better or for worse,” he laughed. “But the flip side of that means that, you know, I’ve worked hard to demonstrate that my instincts toward science are going to be ones that lead to research projects that are important.”
Christianson also noted his dedication to the University’s educational mission, which he believes was another significant factor in him earning tenure. This year, he was able to turn the momentum for the new neuroscience major into a reality by leading the committee that created it. For the first time at BC, students in the Class of 2020 and later will be able to declare the major.
The major has been in the works for years and began with professors who have long since retired from BC. In the years to come, Christianson hopes to use the Schiller Institute’s new teaching laboratories to create either an integrated neuroscience lab or neuroscience lab required for all majors.
One of the reasons Christianson cites the creation of the neuroscience major as his most gratifying accomplishment, rather than prestigious grants or groundbreaking research, is because of the new and exciting opportunities it affords those he cares about most—BC students.
“The pride of my career is to see where these students end up on their own and how they affect other people,” Christianson said. “I can’t wait until next fall when we’re really launching this, and students can be in classes as neuroscience majors and taking on projects as aspiring neuroscientists, and [to] kind of let the cat out of the bag is going to be very exciting.”
Featured Image by Maggie DiPatri / Heights Editor