Biopsychology Major Prepares Students for a Variety of Careers

by Alec De Yong ’20

(Alec De Yong ’20 is a senior professional writing and rhetoric major in the honors program.)

At less than four years old, McKendree’s biopsychology program is sending graduates into the world well equipped to succeed in their field. With approximately 60 students, “it is already very popular and many have gone on to occupational or physical therapy graduate school, counseling programs and careers,” said Dr. Tami Eggleston, professor of psychology and a driving force behind the program’s creation.

The relatively young program was created as Tami (who graduated with a biopsychology degree herself) saw she was helping many students gain footing in occupational therapy, physical therapy, accelerated nursing and chiropractic—fields which required some psychology classes as well as biology classes. “We wanted to offer a major that truly is the best of psychology and the best of biology,” she said.

The degree allows graduates to stand out as they take their next step after McKendree. “Gaining acceptance into graduate schools is very competitive,” noted Tami, who wants the program’s graduates to have every possible advantage. The program is popular among students and many graduates have already gone on to do big things, she said. “We are meeting the students’ goals. I feel very proud of what they have already accomplished and just this year we have had many get accepted into graduate programs.”

Dr. Angela LaMora, assistant professor of biology, oversees the science courses required for biopsychology. “We will be further differentiating the BS and BA degrees, emphasizing the biological sciences with the BS,” she said. Students who are strong in biology “can concentrate on this core of classes, allowing them to maintain high GPAs while getting to take the exact courses they need.”

Both professors hope to see the major continue to grow, with more student research projects and biopsychology-related internships. This summer, the program welcomed Dr. Michael Hahn, who is eager to conduct research with the students. “We have accomplished a lot in just four years, so I feel confident that our biopsychology major will continue to thrive,” said Tami.

In these articles, you will meet an Alzheimer’s researcher, an occupational therapist, and a fitness coach who works with Parkinson’s patients—three alumni who have shared their expertise, training and skills to inform and inspire students in the biopsychology capstone class.




As a member of the McKendree Bearcat men’s bowling and ice hockey teams, Tom Mahan ’07 developed leadership experience and a sense of teamwork—skills he continues to utilize today as a research assistant and doctoral candidate on the frontier of Alzheimer’s research.

Tom’s path from student-athlete to researcher began as a biology major in Voigt Hall. “My time spent at McKendree helped lay the groundwork for my interest in how biological systems work,” he said. His McKendree education provided a knowledge base to build upon in postgraduate school, helping him to develop critical thinking skills and to “think like a scientist.”

Dr. Robb Van Putte, professor of biology, served as a mentor for Tom’s senior research project and his first venture into conducting original research. “When I faced challenges in my research project, Dr. Van Putte reassured me that even though experiments may not go according to plan, it was all part of the scientific learning process,” Tom said.


Shortly after he graduated from McKendree, Tom began pursuing his master’s degree by taking night classes at the University of Missouri–St. Louis. A course in Proteins as Polymers introduced him to Alzheimer’s disease and has helped inform his research and aided him in developing experiments. Tom’s research is on protein collecting in the brain and the damage it causes. “These protein aggregates are ultimately what lead to the dementia and cognitive impairments that are seen in Alzheimer’s,” he explained.

Neuroscience research assistant Tom Mahan ’07 majored in biology.During this time, Tom’s grandmother began to develop dementia, a primary symptom of Alzheimer’s. This tragedy, paired with his newfound awareness of Alzheimer’s, put Tom on his current path. “I found myself asking more and more questions about Alzheimer disease and realized that I really wanted to be involved in the scientific research and maybe one day be involved in helping develop therapeutics,” he said.

After obtaining his master’s, Tom began working as a research assistant at the Washington University School of Medicine lab of Dr. David Holtzman. He started with the biochemical analysis of mice brains, but these are no ordinary rodents. The roughly 1,000 mice he studies are biologically engineered to produce the protein plaques that cause Alzheimer’s much faster.

Currently a doctoral candidate, he expects to graduate in May.

Tom has another significant tether to the disease that he has spent so much time researching: his two-year-old son, Teddy, who was born with Down syndrome. Tom explained that individuals with Down syndrome are born with three copies of their 21st chromosome. This is also the chromosome that produces amyloid beta, the main component of the protein plaques that cause Alzheimer’s. Individuals with Down syndrome produce 50 percent more amyloid beta, making them much more likely to develop Alzheimer’s. Tom shared that one in 10 individuals with Down syndrome have Alzheimer’s disease and 70 percent over age 60 have it. These numbers are staggering when compared to the general population.

“Having had elderly relatives who have been affected by Alzheimer disease, I have experienced and seen firsthand how distressing it can be,” Tom said. “Not only is it difficult for those diagnosed with it; it is also incredibly trying on the loved ones and caregivers who have to watch their loved ones slowly fade away.”


Tom Mahan ’07 returned to McKendree on March 4 to discuss his research with students in the biopsychology capstone class.While he was previously aware of the connection between Alzheimer’s and Down syndrome, Tom said having Teddy opened his eyes. “I had never thought about what it would be like for a parent to watch their child with Down syndrome develop Alzheimer disease,” he said. “My son has been such a blessing and he now provides me with an entirely new motivation to get up every day and fight even harder to achieve a world without Alzheimer’s.”

The Down syndrome-Alzheimer’s connection provides a potential wealth of knowledge for researchers. According to Tom, Washington University has been a world leader in developing biomarkers to help determine if someone has Alzheimer’s. Many of these biomarkers have been developed with the help of participants who have a family history of early or late onset Alzheimer’s. Tom elaborated that there has been a push recently to investigate further these biomarkers in persons with Down syndrome.

The National Institutes of Health has started an initiative to study biomarkers in individuals with Down syndrome. Universities across the U.S. and U.K. are included and Washington University will actively recruit participants and analyze biomarkers. While Tom is not directly involved in this research, he hopes to take part in these efforts going forward in his career.

“Finding treatments for Alzheimer’s is going to be one of the greatest accomplishments of our generation,” he said. “I am incredibly honored to have an opportunity to aid in the development of treatments through my research. I hope that I can continue to help us move towards a world without Alzheimer disease for everyone, including individuals who have Down syndrome like my son.”




Tom Mahan ’07 returned to McKendree on March 4 to discuss his research with students in the biopsychology capstone class.After his first year at McKendree, Ronnie Drummond ’17 learned of a new degree program which would be available for the first time in the 2016-2017 school year, one that put him directly on the path he sought. Ronnie graduated in 2017 with a bachelor’s degree in biopsychology and is slated to graduate from his current program next spring. In April he spoke to a class of McKendree biopsychology students.

It was after he completed his first year at McKendree in 2015 that Ronnie was steered toward both occupational therapy (OT) and biopsychology for the first time. Exploring degree choices, he became intrigued by occupational therapy, a degree unfamiliar to him. “I thought of the benefits my dad could gain from receiving OT services,” he said. When Ronnie was young, his father was involved in a car accident that resulted in back problems. Ronnie’s interest eventually drove him to tour the Washington University School of Medicine. “That tour solidified my interest in pursuing an occupational therapy degree because of my passion to make a difference in individuals’ lives,” he said.

OT works with individuals who need help gaining, restoring or maintaining independence in their daily lives, Ronnie explained. He has worked to make a positive and lasting impact by “allowing individuals, no matter the diagnosis, condition or situation, to live life to the fullest by engaging in the activities that are most meaningful to them.”

Entering the OT program at Washington University, Ronnie was drawn to two different research labs. One focused on the driving abilities of patients with early-onset Alzheimer’s, which interested him. The other was directed by Dr. Quinn Tyminski, who had worked with homeless populations for more than five years. Ronnie made his choice on the first day as he observed Dr. Tyminski’s work at a local homeless shelter, when a client was being housed in his own apartment. “As I watched this man break down and express nothing but his gratitude and appreciation… I realized at that moment that I belong serving this population,” Ronnie said.

Ronnie has participated in many programs as a student of OT and has even started one of his own. “I developed a program to address the concerns of health management and maintenance through six different group sessions at the clinic to address nutrition, medication management, health hygiene, exercise, sexual health and sleep,” he explained. He also collaborates with what he calls some of the “greatest minds in the profession” on other programs, clinics and studies, all aimed at fulfilling his passion: helping people do the things they want and need to do.




Stacie (Panek) King ’14Stacie (Panek) King ’14 earned a degree in health and wellness but her professional journey began long before she stepped foot on McKendree’s campus. In the fitness business since 1982, she has made her way from working the desk at a health club to making a difference in the lives of more than 100 people with Parkinson’s disease. “When you’re working from one job to another in the same area, that's a pretty good sign it's your passion,” she said.

As a non-traditional student with three children, Stacie was understandably intimidated by the prospect of returning to school. She chose to attend McKendree in part because of its small size. Her hard work, research and the public speaking skills she gained as a student have more than paid off, she noted.

After she graduated, Stacie was hired at Memorial Hospital’s Belleville Health and Sports Center (BHSC) and learned about Rock Steady—a nonprofit organization which improves the quality of life of people with Parkinson’s disease through non-contact boxing-based fitness. The program at BHSC was founded and is underwritten by Deborah Belsheim, a McKendree donor.

WStacie (Panek) King ’14 leads her Rock Steady boxers through exercises to improve their balance, coordination, agility, strength, focus and rhythm.hile she has been a boxer for quite some time and has taught boxing programs before, Stacie admitted her knowledge of the disease was nowhere near as extensive. “The only person I knew who had Parkinson’s was my cousin and I knew nothing about Parkinson’s,” she said.

Three weeks into her job, she took a weekend training opportunity in Indianapolis to become a Rock Steady-certified coach. She started the program at BHSC in June of 2016 with 48 class members. In just two years, the program has grown to more than 100.

When nerve cells die in the portion of the brain that controls movement, the brain produces less dopamine, causing the hallmark symptoms of Parkinson’s: trembling, stiffness, and impaired balance and coordination. Stacie’s clients start the program with focus and hand-eye coordination. “It wakes up the muscles and things start happening,” she said. Although the goal is to “fight back at Parkinson’s,” the curriculum does not stop at boxing. Stacie also uses Tabata (high intensity interval) and circuit training, free weights and scores of other workouts.

Rock Steady has given Stacie’s passion for health and fitness new life and a deeper fulfillment. For her group members, it is not just a workout; they support each other, they are a family, she said. Many of those she helps had, at one point, given up hope, she noted.

“I would never give this up. This is my path. I would’ve never known that I’d be working with Parkinson's patients. It’s just amazing. We see miracles every single day. There is hope we can provide, that they can fight back and have some kind of quality of life.”