The Best Of Both Worlds Alyssa Phelps 

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.

“It was one of those cliché moments,” she says. “When I got on campus I knew this was where I wanted to be. I realized that even if I didn’t play volleyball I wanted to come here, that’s how much I loved it. It was the perfect balance. I loved the volleyball program. It’s an Ivy League school. And it’s a beautiful campus. I just fell in love with it right away.”

And despite being more than 1,000 miles from her hometown of Bucyrus, Kans., and learning on a campus that boasts six times as many undergraduate students (13,700) as the population of that town (2,065), Phelps points to the diversity of Cornell as another component that makes her undergraduate experience so fulfilling.

“Meeting people from all over the world is something very special,” she says. “I have friends from Australia and Europe and all the way across the United States. And I play volleyball with some of those people.”

Phelps wrapped up her junior season on the court last weekend, a campaign in which the Big Red struggled to a 6-18 record, but showed marked improvement overall and were consistently in each set it played, with more than one-third of its losses coming by just two points.

Despite the team’s struggles over the past few seasons, Phelps has thrived and will enter her final season at Cornell ranked fifth all-time in career assists (2,344). And while Jen Strazza’s school record of 3,572 is out of reach, Phelps has a legitimate chance to become just the second player in Cornell volleyball’s storied history to reach 3,000 assists.

Phelps is on pace to become just the second player in Cornell volleyball’s storied history to reach 3,000 assists.

She has also developed as a leader on the court. As the quarterback of the offense, a volleyball setter is often the de-facto leader. But as a freshman immediately thrust into a starting role, Phelps was too “scared” to really lead in her first year wearing the Red and White. The following season, though just a sophomore, she was one of the upperclassmen on a team that featured just one senior and no juniors. Again, she was expected to lead, but struggled to take that step.

“I knew I needed to be a leader, but I wasn’t quite there yet,” Phelps explains. “I wanted to be, but I wasn’t ready. This year, I had the experience and confidence to lead and that will just carry over to next season.”

With one year remaining at Cornell, Phelps still has a lot to do – write a senior thesis, apply to graduate school, try to reach 3,000 assists, lead the Big Red volleyball team – but she wouldn’t have it any other way.

“There are just so many opportunities to take advantage of at Cornell and I just have to make the most of every minute I have here.”

The 2015 Big Red

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