2018/2019 OURMA Awarded to Dr. Jena Hales

TOPICS: Awards and Honors, Faculty and Staff, Research and Fieldwork, Student Success

Monday, February 4, 2019

Ali Mclagan, Marta Sabariego, Dr. Jena Hales, Nina Tabrizi, Greer Marshall 


This year The College of Arts and Science’s very own Dr. Jena Hales received the 2018/2019 Outstanding Undergraduate Research Mentor Award. Dr. Jena Hales is an instrumental member of the Psychological Sciences’ Behavioral Neuroscience research program. Dr. Hales joined the Psychological Sciences faculty in Fall 2015. Before arriving at USD she completed her Post Doc and conducted research at UCSD.

Over the past seven years Dr. Hales has mentored more than 40 undergraduate students and provided them with opportunities to develop their technical and critical thinking skills as neuroscientists, while fostering their passion for science. Every student participating in research studies under the mentorship of Dr. Hales has gained an understanding of how research is conducted and how efficient labs are run, giving students an incomparable undergraduate experience.

Research Goals and Models

The goal of Dr. Hales' research is to examine how different brain areas are involved in the formation and retrieval of memories. Her studies use rats as a model system for exploring memory function and dysfunction, and she employs a variety of techniques to better understand memory. She uses both tightly controlled behavioral tasks, which isolate important cognitive components in order to identify brain regional involvement in performance, and more naturalistic, ecologically valid behavioral tasks, which provide rich data regarding cognitive functions and behavior. Using precise stereotaxic, neurosurgical approaches, she is able to identify how lesions of individual brain areas influence the formation and retrieval of different kinds of memories. Histologically processing brain tissue and examining lesion as well as healthy brain tissue allows her to confirm regions of intact and damaged brain tissue and to relate any brain manipulations with resulting behavioral changes. Although these research questions can be complex and the techniques require lots of practice, her undergraduate students have learned to perform all of these skills and techniques that she uses in her research. 

Dedication and Inspiration

Dr. Hales dedicates her summers to SURE students, PURE students, McNair scholars, as well as dozens of full- and part-time volunteers. Students in Dr. Hales’ lab have presented their research at SFN, Creative Collaborations, SACNAS, and the Psychological Sciences Research Colloquium. Working alongside Dr. Hales gives students valuable experiences through collaborative projects and and has resulted in a number of student co-authored professional presentations and papers, as well as an impressive number of graduates who have gone on to competitive graduate programs in neuroscience and medicine.

Nina Tabrizi has worked in Dr. Hales’ lab since her freshman year. “Jena has gone above and beyond, not only for me but for the rest of her research students. Jena is available nearly 24/7 to support her students while they are in the lab and takes teaching to a new level. Her focus is not only to teach techniques in the lab but to have us really analyze research. She essentially tries to craft our minds into one of a researcher and does so by constantly questioning us in a way to thing above and beyond through our analyses.”

Among the students working in her lab, there are many woman researchers.  Nina mentions, “She emphasizes that as a woman in STEM we must never undervalue our progress or sell ourselves short. There are countless times that she has impressed the idea that what we are doing is so important, which has changed the way that I talk about my own research. It has also changed the way that I talk about myself and the other things I am doing in my community. Through changing subtle portions of my own speech I have been able to speak more confidently in my presentations and about other aspects of my life.”


What is Dr. Hales’ motivation for going above and beyond for her students? "I was fortunate enough to experience first-hand the value of a liberal arts education and the positive impact of conducting neuroscience research under such a mentor. My undergraduate research mentor provided me with an invaluable experience, and I strive to provide this kind of undergraduate experience for my own students. Establishing a research community in which each student can confidently and successfully contribute to the studies is rewarding, and the satisfaction and pride the students have demonstrated has been wonderful."

Reflecting on her years of mentorship and research Dr. Hales states, "Every year, I grow and learn more about research mentoring and running a lab with undergraduate students. As I move forward I will continue to foster the positive energy of collaboration, commitment, and accountability and to keep feeding their intellectual and scientific curiosity and passion. Nothing has been more fulfilling in my three years as a professor than observing my students’ passion for neuroscience research grow within my lab and inspire them to continue that journey after they graduate."

Dr. Hales and fellow OURMA recipients will be recognized at:

April 9, 2019
12:30 - 1:30 p.m.
Location TBD

Honors Convocation
May 7, 2019
12:30- 1:30 p.m.
Camino Hall - Shiley Theater

begin quoteNothing has been more fulfilling in my three years as a professor than observing my students’ passion for neuroscience research grow within my lab and inspire them to continue that journey after they graduate.


Monique Aguirre
(619) 260-4511

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