Jonny Saunders '15 catches research bug while studying brain functions

by Article by Natalie Pate ’15, politics and French/Francophone studies major,

As commencement nears, our graduates reflect on their Willamette experience and share their plans for the future. This is the first of our five-part series.

When Jonny Saunders ’15 enrolled at Willamette, he had a plan: He would major in politics and hold public office one day. But toward the end of his sophomore year, he changed his mind. Instead, he decided to become a neuroscientist.

“Economists study how decisions coagulate into an economy, musicians build sounds into a song. I'm after how neurons make a mind,” he says.

When Saunders met with physiology professor Emma Coddington about his options, she worried he was too far behind in key subjects and tried to discourage such a major career switch. So Saunders set out to prove his abilities by taking every class available – online, on campus and during the summer.

Now, in addition to graduating with a neuroscience degree this spring, Saunders will continue his studies of the brain next year at the University of Oregon.

“Jonny is one of those superhuman types who can do anything he wants because he's able to set his mind to any pursuit,” says long-term friend Emma Jonas ’15.

“He gets so excited about what he's learning, and he's always eager to share it.”

Choosing Neuroscience

Though neuroscience wasn’t Saunders’ original choice, he is now one of only four students at Willamette to pursue this special, interdisciplinary major.

Under the supervision and mentorship of Coddington, Saunders has laid the groundwork for a rewarding career in research.

Saunders says neuroscience provides insights into how people are connected and how they interact with the world.

“Neuroscience allows us to connect the dots between systems as small and strange as physics and enormous and seemingly human as economics,” he says. “We are atoms singing synchronously, and for some reason those atoms really like hip-hop and sunsets.”

Applying his Passion

Since May 2014, Saunders has worked in Coddington’s research program, addressing the question of how hormones modulate behavior — specifically in the context of rough skin newts.

As a student wishing to pursue professional research, Saunders says this program and mentorship has proven invaluable.

“My work in Emma’s lab has put me face to face with the electrical signals that physically show the ability to react to environmental danger,” he says. “As such, after literally, physically, seeing an emotion, my goal isn’t so much a specific career as whatever situation will get me more of that.

Coddington says she’s very proud of Saunders and the example he’s set for other students.

“I hope he finds a life and a career that he’s excited to wake up and go to each day,” she says. “I’m really excited for him because he’s really caught the bug of chasing the answers to questions we don’t know the answers to yet.”

Saunders greatly values his Willamette experience and its impact on his life.

“Research is like a virus,” he says. “I can’t imagine doing anything else.”

From his work in neuroscience to his role as president of ASWU sound, Saunders works hard to improve the world around him.

“He combines altruism, creativity and determination in everything he does,” Jonas says. “He's an asset to any community lucky enough to have him.”

Pursuing Research

After graduation, Saunders will join professor Mike Wehr’s lab at the University of Oregon to work on the cellular and network processing of sound in mice.

This work will potentially address such questions as how we hear complex pitches or keep track of rhythmic sounds.

Saunders says he’s eager to begin a long-term project researching new topics and systems in the brain.

“The thought of hundreds or thousands of neurons blinking around, processing a sound gets a bit of saliva flowing, to say the least,” he says.

Even as he looks to a future beyond Willamette, Saunders’ friends and peers know he’ll continue to make an impact.

“I'm confident that Jonny can do anything he wants and will make this world a better place,” Jonas says. “He cares so much about people and the environment, and he's so dedicated to everything he does.

“He's an unstoppable force of good.”


Other 2015 graduates

From Tragedy to Triumph

Moved by the death of a friend, Emily Miller '15 wants to help people heal. Willamette prepared her for UCLA medical school, where she'll study pediatric oncology.

One Person, One Waterfall at a Time

Martha Sonato ’15 takes a person-to-person approach to engage the Latino community with environmental issues in the Columbia River Gorge.

Artistic Outlook

As the first Willamette student to win the Luce Scholar national fellowship, Oldham '14, MBA'15 is spending a year in Japan to study the art of ikebana.

Making Her Voice Heard

An aspiring human rights journalist, Natalie Pate '15 is honing her writing skills this summer through a reporting internship with the Statesman Journal newspaper in Salem.