Zombie Apocalypse in Biopsychology: Melissa Masicampo

Dr. Melissa Masicampo is a Psychology professor at Wake Forest University who teaches neuroscience-based courses such as psychopharmacology. This semester, she is teaching two sections of biopsychology. Unlike traditional psychology or biology classes, Masicampo attempts to relate the hard concepts covered in biopsych to a Zombie Apocalypse; more specifically, how to kill those zombies. 

Her Campus: Tell me a little bit about yourself, education, and career. 

Melissa Masicampo: I am originally from Massachusetts. I went to college at UMass Boston where I got a degree in Psychology. I took many neuroscience courses in college and fell in love with neuroscience. I actually added a fifth year because I was so invested in neuroscience. I graduated from FSU in 2012 with a P.h.D. in neuroscience. My dissertation was actually on afferent regulation of cell survival. I was looking at the auditory system and we’d look at cell death in the auditory brain system. 

HC: Can you describe a little bit about how Zombies relate to neuroscience?

MM: Zombies have massive brain damage due to whatever is causing the “zombieism,” be it a fungus or virus or whatever. They have some really unique behaviors like an insatiable appetite, lumbering gait, they don’t appear to have much by way of cognition. If we can understand the human brain and understand what regulates all those features in the human brain, then we can understand why the zombie brain is like that and hopefully kill the zombies. 

HC: How did you come up with the idea to frame your biopsychology class around killing zombies?

MM: Oh that's a good question. It was sort of an evolved proces. I first started thinking about it in terms of puzzles and games because I did a zombie theme escape room and I really liked it. So after, I would have students do puzzles in class and I realized the puzzles helped the students think about the material, which kind of evolved into the strategic planning exercises that we do in class. I think the zombie theme came from, well I am a supernatural nerd, so I just thought it was such a fun idea to pair neuroscience with solving puzzles and fighting zombies. Then the zombie thing kind of escalated because there actually is a lot out there about zombies, and you know, zombies are just “hot” right now. 

HC: In what ways do you incorporate the “zombie apocalypse” into the biopsych curriculum? How do you create assignments that help to integrate what your students are learning? 

MM: Ok, so as you know, the curriculum works in that we talk about different themes in neuroscience. We start at neuron connections and move on to neural anatomy, etc. Studying the zombie brain offers a nice parallel to the themes we cover, in the way that it integrates itself in the curriculum. It is easy to align the zombie brain with the curriculum. The strategic planning assignments are really the main theme that came out of the zombie theme. It is sort of a branding, if you will. I really wanted to teach students about how they learn, about metacognition, which is a fancy word for “thinking about how we think.” The goal of the strategic planning exercises is to teach students metacognition without them knowing that they’re learning neuroscience as they do in the context of killing zombies.

HC: Why do you think that using zombies as a way to understand and learn neuroscience is more useful than a more traditional learning approach?

MM: I think that any time students can have a little bit more fun with what they’re learning, that can aid in their learning. Learning about zombies is fun, it’s silly, and it’s nontraditional. I could very easily stand in the front of the room and lecture about neuroscience and not tie it to anything else. By tying it to something funny and interesting, it allows students to make more associations and connections with the real world. Now everytime a student in this class sees a zombie movie, they are going to think about neuroscience. Ultimately, I think just having more connections and more interest in the topic is going to aid in learning. 

HC: Do you find that students learn better with this framework? Is there more student engagement, on average?

MM: I think so, yeah. That’s what I'm trying to collect data on this semester. I am trying to get more quantitative and qualitative data. Talking to students, I would say yes. I mean, I read students evaluations at the end of the semester and they talk about how they enjoy having something fun to link neuroscience with and how it’s so interesting. The past few semesters I have been trying to collect more quantitative measurements, so I will have to let you know after I analyze the data in May. 

HC: What is your favorite part of teaching biopsychology?

MM: Oh gee, my favorite part? I think the most rewarding is when I have a student outside of class and says “this thing happened to me, and all I can think about is what was happening in my brain at the time.” If students are thinking about biopsych while they’re out living life, I call that rewarding. It is really rewarding having students change their attitudes about learning. When students learn something that they previously thought was too intimidating or scary, and then they just realize that they have to go about it a different way, that is the most rewarding piece.