The neuroscientist: Associate Professor of Psychology and Behavioral Neuroscience Steven Neese

You can often find Steven Neese in the basement of West Science inside the Vivarium Lab, which is home to 25-30 rats—mothers and their offspring. Neese and his team of student lab assistants conduct ongoing research on the impact of a high-fat diet and hormones on the behaviors of the Vivarium’s residents. Neese speaks passionately about the process and the potential extrapolation for human behavior and neuroscience.

Looking back

Steven Neese holds one of his lab rats in the Vivarium Lab inside of West Science.
Steven Neese holds one of his lab rats in the Vivarium Lab inside of West Science.

He’s spent his 20-year career investigating the impact of naturally occurring hormones such as estrogen and testosterone, dietary hormones found in OTC supplements, and synthetic hormones on the behavior of rats. Neese’s master’s thesis focused on the impact of a botanical estrogen on the learning and memory functions of the offspring of mother rats who were given alcohol while carrying fetuses. 

For his doctorate, he examined the potential impact of synthetic estrogen on rats with traumatic brain injuries. Did it enhance their recovery time in motor-sensory ways and in terms of their memory? He found that the treated rats did demonstrate enhanced movement and memory over the untreated rats. Neese’s post-doc research examined supplemental estrogen’s impact on the working memory and impulsive behaviors of aging female rats. 


“The block plan fits the way I teach,” Neese says. “I like the ability to just be together. I don’t have to worry about if my student is taking a calculus test today. It also allows my students to investigate something on their own and it allows me to be creative in the classroom. My favorite part of my job is advising students.”

When asked what surprised him the most about teaching at Cornell since his arrival six years ago, he said it is how hard the students work. He says his students don’t complain about being in class all day. The students who work in the Vivarium with him gain animal lab research experience that looks stellar on their resumes and helps them get into graduate or med school. At the same time, they are fulfilling a major component of Cornell’s core curriculum, Ingenuity in Action, which requires students to complete at least two hands-on experiences. 

Looking to the future

A rat looks out of its holding area in the Vivarium Lab inside of West Science.
A rat looks out of its holding area in the Vivarium Lab inside of West Science.

Neese dreams about finding even better ways to connect his research lab with behavioral neuroscience courses at Cornell. He sees areas he can expand upon like courses in psychopharmacology. He knows his students will continue to conduct research with him and present their findings at conferences. He continues to look for ways to incorporate students into all aspects of the research process at the Vivarium Lab. 

As for the future of the field of behavioral neuroscience? 

“Behavioral neuroscience is always going to have a place at the table,” Neese says. “Behavioral neuroscience, as in any science, becomes more reductionist in nature, mechanistic, pushing along the lines of looking at molecular components, with genetics moving into epigenetics and watching how these markers change in the brain. But at the end of the day, it folds right back to the work that I did with traumatic brain injury. I can make a brain look like a normal brain but if the behavior hasn’t recovered, what have I done?”

The Vivarium Lab’s work is overseen by the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee, which is a board of faculty, an off-campus veterinarian, and a local community member to make sure the animals are well taken care of according to the American Veterinary Medical Association from the Federal government.

Read about the other faculty in this series:

The anthropologist: Associate Professor of Anthropology Misha Quill

The organic chemist: Associate Professor of Chemistry Jai Shanata ’05

The wildlife conservationist: Associate Professor of Biology Tammy Mildenstein

The physical therapist: Associate Professor of Kinesiology Kristi Meyer ’01