New biochemistry professor seeks to integrate neuroscience and biochemistry

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Rachel Branco knew what she wanted to do with her life when she was still a young girl. In her middle school science class, she always wanted to do projects on neuroscience. Today, she is living her childhood dream after taking on the role of assistant teaching professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Chemistry, hoping to merge her background in neuroscience into the field of biochemistry.

Branco was always struck by how everyone’s brain works differently to process the world in unique ways. “I knew I was interested in neuroscience for a long long time,” Branco said. “I thought that neuroscience was really beautiful because it was something between the physical and spiritual and that we have ways to literally look at the brain to tell us how people experience the world differently.”

That interest took her to Baylor University, where she earned her bachelor’s degree in neuroscience. Sit was at Baylor she first considered entering academia. “I was so enamored that it was someone’s job to be curious, to ask questions, and to find answers to share with everyone,” Branco said. After graduating, she traveled to the Netherlands to earn her master’s degree on a Fulbright fellowship at the University of Maastricht.

Last year, Branco completed her Ph.D. in neuroscience at Emory University. It was while she was at Emory that Branco had extensive experience in teaching and got a taste for what life as a professor would be like.

As Branco was finishing her Ph.D., she was searching for faculty openings around the country when she found the opening at Notre Dame. “I grew up in the Midwest, north of Chicago, so I knew about Notre Dame growing up from my friends at school,” Branco said.

Notre Dame caught her attention because the neuroscience program was looking for people who could help shape the relatively new major. Branco was especially drawn to the possibility of creating new study-abroad opportunities for neuroscience students and adding her biochemical expertise to a program that did not have any biochemical specialists at the time.

She noted how the position at Notre Dame played to all of her strengths and was exactly what she was looking for in a career. “It was really exciting to me that Notre Dame has this neuroscience program that is cross-departmental, and how they were looking for someone who could create neuroscience classes with a heavy biochemical component,” Branco said. “The opportunity to be a part of a major where I could help create the curriculum from the ground up and really shape the course of the major was really attractive.”

Since arriving last August, Branco has loved her new role so far. In the fall semester, Branco spent her time developing new neuroscience courses. She now teaches two of these courses: Molecular Neuroscience and Neuropharmacology.

When asked what her favorite part of Notre Dame is, Branco jokingly said, “I really like the burrata cheese pizza at Rohr’s.” However, ultimately Branco said that her students have been the highlight of her time at Notre Dame. “The students are a dream to teach because they are intellectually curious, hardworking, and inherently motivated to learn about the things I’m passionate about, so that makes every day of teaching really fun.”