About Me

USU Headshot_compressedI am currently an Assistant Professor of Neurobiology in the Biology Department at Utah State University. My research uses a comparative and translational approach across highly social species of rodents, primates, humans, and now canids, to better understand the neural function of the oxytocin and vasopressin systems. The broader goal of my research is to better understand the neurobiological basis of social function in animals and to try to identify possible biomarkers, disease etiologies, and novel treatment avenues for human clinical populations that are characterized by deficits in social function, such as individuals with autism spectrum disorders, social anxiety disorder, or schizophrenia.

From 2013 to 2019, I was a postdoc in the lab of Dr. Karen Bales at UC-Davis. The Bales lab investigates the neural mechanisms of pair-bonding and social attachment in the monogamous coppery titi monkey, which are housed at the California National Primate Research Center. In my future research program, I plan to continue to study the social visual cognitive abilities of these small bodied primates by using a recently validated non-invasive technique to track their gaze direction when they are looking at various social and nonsocial visual stimuli (photos, videos).

Sara's Emory graduation May 2014 047I completed my PhD in Neuroscience at Emory University in Atlanta, Ga in August of 2013, where I worked with Dr. Larry Young at Yerkes National Primate Research Center. My dissertation research focused on the neuroanatomy and pharmacology of the oxytocin receptor in the nonhuman primate brain, and I developed the first reliable method for the visualization of oxytocin receptors in primate brain tissue.I have continued to use this technique to describe the neural distribution of oxytocin receptors in the human brain and investigate the differences between postmortem specimens from individuals who had autism spectrum disorder and specimens from typically developing individuals. Currently, my research program is delving into the possible genetic or gene regulation mechanisms that may be driving the differences in receptor densities that we have discovered in the autistic brain.

Sara crystal apple cropped

Throughout my career, teaching has been a high priority, and I have had extensive training and experience with active learning and curriculum development. I designed two interdisciplinary, upper-level seminar courses during graduate school: Intersex: Biology & Gender and The Coevolution of Dogs & Humans. I was awarded one of Emory University’s competitive Dean’s Teaching Fellowships before my final year of graduate school, which allowed me to independently teach my intersex class. My students nominated me for the Crystal Apple Teaching Award, which only professors were eligible for, but due to the overwhelming nominations by my students, the selection committee made a new category for ‘Teaching by a Graduate Student’ to recognize my efforts.

As an Assistant Professor, I am developing new courses for the Biology Department and the growing Neuroscience PhD Program at Utah State, such as upper-level classes like ‘The Neuronal Organization of Animal Behavior’ and ‘Behavioral Neuroendocrinology’, as well as being co-lead for an intermediate undergraduate lab course in organismal physiology and an instructor for the spring semester of the required core neuroscience first year sequence for the PhD students.

I am committed to a career that prioritizes undergraduate education and the mentoring of undergraduate and graduate student researchers from diverse backgrounds, and I place a high value on employing innovative and engaging teaching strategies and cross-disciplinary course design.