In mentoring transfer and Latinx students—and in his research—psychology professor Victor Cazares draws from experience.
Psychology professor Victor Cazares credits his career in academia to his community college experience in his home state of California, where he was inspired by the small classes and hands-on engagement with faculty. At Williams, he has aimed to recreate that same close-knit learning environment both inside and outside the classroom, especially for transfer and Latinx students.
In addition to teaching courses such as Feelings and Emotions: Shaping the Brain and Society, Experimentation and Statistics, and From Order to Disorder(s): The Role of Genes and the Environment in Psychopathology, Cazares is a faculty advisor for Williams’ newly formed Transfer Student Union. The college is seeking to enroll about a dozen transfer students, veterans and other nontraditional students in each entering class as part of its broader work to increase access and affordability for everyone. The club and groups like it are helping to ensure these students can thrive.
“Transfer students enrich the college experience of all students and may be uniquely positioned to peer-mentor other students,” Cazares says.
Cazares is also involved with SUBE, a newly formed student-run organization at Williams focused on empowering Latinx students to develop professional pursuits in STEM+ fields, where they are historically underrepresented.
“Truly one of the most gratifying parts of my job is being able to support students going through similar experiences as I did,” says Cazares, whose research examines how interactions between genetic background and the environment alter neurophysiology and risk for exhibiting pathological behaviors.
As with mentoring, Cazares’ interest in brain behavior stems from a deeply personal connection. After seeing his father, who has schizophrenia, live through experiences far divorced from reality, Cazares says he wanted to study how the brain learns and stores memories.
“When you think about what makes us human, it’s the memories we recall and the new ones we create,” he says. “It’s fundamental to who we are as organisms.”
While behavioral neuroscience related to learning and memory has been studied for decades, it’s only recently, through new technological advances and cellular imagery, that scientists have been able to see the populations of brain cells that store information and what happens to those cells when memories are changed.
Cazares is using these advances to study the brain’s responses to fear and the role of memory. Research has shown that when people are repeatedly exposed to fear, the brain can eventually develop a new memory that suppresses the fear response. (This process is the principle underlying exposure therapy for people who are diagnosed with anxiety disorders.) But often, that fear-suppressing memory will be forgotten or dulled over time, resulting in the return of the fear.
Cazares wants to know why and how this happens. He’s discovered that changing contexts can help the brain learn, and he’s developed a theory that introducing subjects to new environments in exposure therapy could train the brain to better recall that fear-suppressing memory. With support from a three-year, $435,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health, he will be testing the theory using new video imaging technology developed at UCLA. He plans to conduct research there with Williams students during Winter Study in 2024. Ultimately, he hopes his research can help inform treatment approaches for anxiety disorders such as phobia or post-traumatic stress disorder.
Shania Gonzalez ’25 first met Cazares at Williams’ Summer Science Program for incoming students and joined his nine-person lab her first year. She started out by running experiments for upperclass students but is now conducting her own project on the role of dopamine in memory learning.
“Having a good mentor and being involved in interesting research has made me confident in my decision to pursue science as a career,” Gonzalez says. “Professor Cazares really cares about his students’ development as scientists, and he gives them every opportunity he can to gain experience and skills to succeed.”