There are many unique and diverse paths that lead to Gustavus Adolphus College. While a majority of Gusties find their way to St. Peter as 18 year olds fresh out of high school, there are others that take a more non-traditional journey to Gustavus like current senior and psychological science major Joe Wachutka ’13.
Wachutka graduated from Eden Prairie High School in 2003, but didn’t enroll at Gustavus until the fall of 2010. Despite wanting to join the military right after high school, Wachutka went to college for one semester and then joined the Navy in April of 2004. He was soon sent to the Naval Nuclear Power Training Command in South Carolina to study electronics and nuclear power. After a stint in New York where he learned to operate a prototype nuclear plant, Wachutka spent 2006 to 2010 stationed on the USS George H.W. Bush in Norfolk, Virginia. There, he worked on electronics equipment in the reactor plant and stood watch as reactor operator. Wachutka left the military in April 2010 so he could go back to school and study psychology.
“I wanted to find a school close to home so I could be near my family. I grew up in Eden Prairie, so Gustavus was a good fit for that,” Wachutka said. “I also wanted to attend a smaller school, and I found a liberal arts education appealing after the rigidity and structure of the military.”
Wachutka has always been fascinated with how things work; taking things apart and putting them back together again, just to see how they operate.
“After spending so many years working with nuclear engineering I was getting bored with mechanical/electrical systems and wanted a change of pace,” he said. “I thought learning about what makes people work offered an interesting avenue to build on my past experience.”
During his first year as a psychological science major, Wachutka was able to assist Dr.’s Richard Martin and Mark Kruger with some of their research.
“This was a valuable experience to learn how to construct a research project from a basic level,” Wachutka said.
During his junior year, a unique research opportunity presented itself to Wachutka. While giving tours of the neuroscience rooms during the dedication ceremony for the new Beck Hall, Wachutka began explaining how the electroencephalography (EEG) system worked to a man who was looking at it.
“Later, I found out that this man was Dr. Yoshio Okada, a professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School and the inventor of the BabyMEG machine I worked with this past summer. This explained why he was half ignoring me that day, as he knew far more about our neuroimaging systems than I did,” Wachutka said.
Okada, a 1971 graduate of Gustavus, is the director of the Magnetoencephalography (MEG) Program at Boston Children’s Hospital and a clinical professor of Neurology at Harvard Medical School.
“Dr. Okada later spoke with Dr. Tim Robinson ’65, a professor in the psychological science department, about sending a Gustavus student to Boston for an internship at his lab. I was working on research with Dr. Robinson at the time, and volunteered for the internship,” Wachutka said.
“We welcome young, motivated, intelligent students like Joe to come to our center and learn about our techniques, so that they might help children in need of help in the future,” Okada said.
Wachutka spent his 2012 January Interim Experience working with Okada and a team of researchers from Greece, Turkey, India, Germany, and Japan, learning how to operate a magnetoencephalograpy (MEG) system and was able to assist and observe recordings using the BabyMEG system. His January internship then led to a more significant paid internship in the same lab over the summer where he learned a variety of cutting edge research techniques.
“The goal of our program is to help children with various brain disorders such as epilepsy, cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, and autism spectrum disorder through the development of non-invasive safe techniques for early diagnosis in patients and through the development of methods for rehabilitation,” Okada said. “We gave Joe opportunities to learn several neuroimaging methods. He was very pleasant to work with, was polite and courteous, worked well with our research team and was very helpful in developing and testing various techniques needed for optimizing capabilities of our research facility.”
While time spent in the classroom is certainly valuable, hands-on experiences often times make all the difference.
“As the result of these experiences he’s one of the best prepared future grad students I’ve ever worked with,” Robinson said.
Following his internship experiences in Boston, Wachutka worked on a project at Gustavus titled “A Comparison of FNIR and EEG Assessments of Responses to Emotion Provoking Stimuli” with fellow psychological science student Pepper Ennis ‘13. They presented a poster regarding this research at the Minnesota Undergraduate Psychology Conference last spring.
“I have worked with Joe in the research lab for the past two years along with Dr. Mark Kruger. I just love his interest in big research questions and his ability to translate big theoretical ideas into testable research designs,” Robinson said. “He’s a marvelous problem solver which is really what you need to be successful as a researcher.”
Wachutka’s current research is focusing on meditation effects on brain patterns as recorded with EEG and how meditation affects learning processes.
With graduation just around the corner, Wachutka is applying to graduate programs to study cognitive neuroscience.
“I hope to work at a university conducting research, and eventually work as a professor at a small college or university,” Wachutka said.
“Joe is very well read, intelligent and interested in ideas like a lot of Gusties, but I think the thing that sets him apart is his willingness to take advantage of exciting opportunities when they arise,” Robinson said.
So as this story goes: from Eden Prairie to the Navy to Gustavus to Harvard, and now Wachutka has the knowledge, experience, and intelligence to write the next chapter as he chooses.
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