Jana Liberato

Senior Jana Liberato Combines Neuroscience With Arts, Mindfulness and Community

Jana Liberato is a mind-body-spirit kind of person.

A senior majoring in Neuroscience and Behavior and minoring in Computer Science, she came to this country as an infant when her parents, who are of Filipino descent, emigrated from the United Arab Emirates and settled in Bloomfield, NJ. Her mother, who is a nurse, and her father, an engineer, always prized education, and Liberato’s older brother, Juno, also an engineer, set an example for her as well by helping her develop a commitment “to the pursuit of knowledge, kindness, and remembrance,” she says.

“I have seen so many children weep because they are denied that at home, and I wish to create a place of solace wherever I go,” she said. “These are the grounds for my current work in neuroscience: I believe that with better understanding of our cognitive functions, as a whole we will be able to practice intentional mindfulness.”

Liberato has approached all areas of her life this way. 

As a child, she spent most of her time reading, gaming, drawing, doing karate, and going to church. She got so good at martial arts that she became a sensei, or instructor, after a decade and taught children, adolescents and adults while in high school. Likewise, after she was confirmed by the church she volunteered as a teacher aide at Sunday school. Her constant involvement in these communities, she says, grounded her beliefs that everyone is capable and thus responsible for extending kindness, patience and understanding to one another—not as an obligation but as a gift. 

When she arrived at RU-N, Liberato was part of the Health Professions Learning Community (HPLC) and intended to become a pharmacist, but a Brain & Language course taught by William Graves, an Associate Professor in Psychology, changed her mind and convinced her to pursue neuroscience and integrate her spiritual and artistic leanings into her work

My pride for being a student at RU-N has grown exponentially over the years, and I’m excited for the next chapter.

Liberato is curious about many aspects of neuroscience, including aphasia. “Language is the basis for understanding others and the world around us,” she said. “When I learned about aphasia, I felt like I'd learned some kind of secret that cut right to the truth when learning about disrupted comprehension and speech pathways."

She also is fascinated with the work of Dr. Anna Abraham, Professor of Educational Psychology at the University of Georgia, who specializes in creativity, imagination and the brain. Through Abraham’s work, Liberato wants to explore creativity as “something of an internal processor for reality,” she said. 

Finally, Liberato wants to investigate von Economo, or spindle, neurons, relatively large cells that may allow rapid communication across the relatively large brains of great apes, elephants and cetaceans such as whales, dolphins and porpoises. Although rare in comparison to other neurons, von Economo neurons are abundant, and comparatively large, in humans and are associated with sense of self and social behavior. Liberato sees a possible research pathway here as well, since there has been scant research on these, she says.

This semester Liberato took her academic work to a new level and began working as a Research Assistant in Graves’ Language, Behavior and Brain Imaging Lab, where she evaluates patient eligibility, schedules MRI testing and administers neuro-psych testing for the collection of data, among other tasks. She has also pursued academic interests outside her STEM major and minor, taking courses such as Women in Medieval Literature, Philosophy of Religion, and Renaissance Art, which she credits with influencing and bolstering her thinking on humanities topics.

Jana Lliberato illustrationLiberato has been involved in the campus community as well. 

As a sophomore, she served Treasurer of RU-N's Pre-Medical Society, and in the fall she indulged her childhood love of art and became founding Treasurer of RU-N 4 The Arts, a student club committed to community-based artistic expression and pre-professional resources. In late April, the club mounted its inaugural student art exhibit, transforming the Paul Robeson Campus Center’s Essex Room into a thriving gallery with illustrations, sculpture textiles, and a collection of poems by students from all majors under the theme of Roots: Origins and Beginnings.

“Newark is such a center for arts and culture,” said Liberato. “I wanted to be involved with the club because I was frankly amazed at the lack of an art club prior. So, it was extremely fulfilling to see artwork from the Newark community pay homage to their beginnings.”

Liberato has been practicing art herself since she was a child, when she’d draw illustrations inspired by fantasy series such as The Narnia and Spiderwick Chronicles. She's kept up with her drawing and this year started selling digital prints of her work, including fanart from popular shows or games such as Arcane or Elden Ring, at conventions. She also makes pins plans to expand her merchandise offerings in the future.

Liberato, who has made the Dean’s List for five semesters, has received the Isabelle Santos-Boye scholarship while at RU-N, awarded to two full-time SASN undergraduate students who are majoring in the arts, sciences or humanities, who demonstrate a serious commitment to completing their undergraduate program, who have a 3.0 GPA and demonstrate financial need.

“I am so eternally thankful for her for endowing this scholarship,” said Liberato. “Without her help and guidance, especially given the difficulties of Covid-19, I would have struggled to continue my education and would be remiss to not call her my savior.” 

After commencement, Liberato is taking a gap year to continue doing neuroscience research while applying to Ph.D. programs in the same field. Ultimately, she wants to do research on art and the brain and continue teaching, which she’s been doing in one form or another for most of her life.

“My pride for being a student at RU-N has grown exponentially over the years, and I’m excited for the next chapter,” she said.