Alyssa Phelps loves rodent brains.
What sounds like a schoolyard taunt is actually a source of pride for the Big Red junior volleyball player.
Phelps, a psychology major in Cornell’s College of Arts & Sciences, does love rodent brains – prairie vole brains to be exact – because they are an important part of her work as a research assistant in the Ophir Integrative Neuroethology Lab at Cornell.
“I was encouraged by two of my former teammates to try and get involved in research really early,” says Phelps. “Fall of my freshman year, I was in a developmental psychology class and the TA George Prounis stood up and said he was looking for a few students to help with a project with prairie voles and studying their brains and I was like, ‘Sold! Sign me up!’”
Phelps began working that spring on the project, which is designed to explore the influence of early life social and spatial environments on neurodevelopment and behavior in the prairie vole. To do that, she has been studying the prairie voles’ brains in order to analyze the neurotransmitter systems.
Since that time, the project has evolved and Phelps has begun assisting on research involving the prairie voles’ dispersal from the nest, and she’s hoping to write an honors thesis on a related subject during her senior year.
For Phelps, the chance to participate in this type of research is just one of the many reasons she considers Cornell to provide student-athletes “the best of both worlds.”
“From being on a Division I volleyball team, and traveling, and working with the amazing athletes and athletic staff to having the opportunity to work in a psych lab with grad students, and to do my own research, and to go to conferences, I just think that’s something really special about the opportunities we have here as student-athletes.”
And it was those opportunities that drew Phelps to Cornell over the other schools that were recruiting her. Standing at 6-feet tall, Phelps has great size for a setter. Throw in the fact that she’s left-handed and spent years playing as a rightside hitter for her club team, and it’s no wonder she was recruited by the likes of Butler, Delaware, UMKC, Southern Illinois, and Evansville. But as is the case with so many Big Red student-athletes, it was the official visit to East Hill that made her decision an easy one.