Monday, April 21, 2014

URSP Student Samantha Wilkins Explores the Effects of Dietary Copper Deficiency on Learning, Memory, and Locomotor Control

I have always been burdened with a painfully broad field of passionate interests, and much of my college career has been characterized by attempts to find a way to negotiate between all of them. At a young age I became enamored with chemistry, fascinated by the infinitesimal level on which different forms of matter interact and dictate the manner of daily life. This relationship was only trumped when I discovered the field of psychology, to which I refocused my studies in order to explore the great puzzle of behavior and the brain. Eventually I found myself at home while volunteering in a graduate cognitive and behavioral neuroscience laboratory. Much of the ongoing research in the lab has encompassed the roles of biometals in the brain and their effects on behavior—a perfect blend of my dichotomous love affairs with the soft and hard sciences. Even more, this research is based with animals, one of the few things that I have any patience for. It was a match made in academic heaven, and an easy decision when I was approached by members of the lab and asked to help answer some unanswered questions.

The study I am conducting is following up on previous research exploring the effects of dietary copper deficiency on different behavioral constructs in rats, primarily exploring learning and memory, and locomotor control. The parameters of this project truly test one’s proficiency in behavioral measures, conceptual chemistry, and research design, and in heading this project I am fortunate to have the invaluable experience of coming face to face with how much I don’t know. This has been the seed for conducting thorough, dedicated research and approaching this project without reservation. It has been a humbling, yet critical opportunity for me to be exposed to the unprotected world of independent research. I now understand that this is absolutely what I want in the future. I have been relieved of all doubt that I want to continue into a graduate program in neuroscience with long-term goals of laboratory research.

On a daily basis I search and review literature related to my project, trying to obtain as much background knowledge as possible for the basis of my approach to the research question. Once my rats arrive, the pace will dramatically change and I will begin a completely inflexible schedule of handling, feeding, and monitoring the animals. The foundations of animal research are anchored in loyal devotion to the timeline as they age, and critical points in the research must be universally carried out among the experimental groups in order to avoid confounds and complications. This has been the most significant concept that I have discovered in preparing for the animal portion of my study to begin.