Undergrads as an Asset in Neurobiology

written by Chris Smith

BS Neuroscience  Furman University From Greenwood, SC

Chris Smith
BS Neuroscience Furman University
From Greenwood, SC

I am a 6th year Neurobiology PhD student in the lab of Charlotte Boettiger in the Department of Psychology at UNC. During my time as a graduate student at UNC – CH, I have had the pleasure of working with 8 UNC undergraduate students whose interests ranged from psychology to biology. My role was to show them the various aspects (and challenges) of human subject research and how it can be used to understand the cognitive processes related to addictive behaviors we study in the lab. Specifically, I focus on understanding the neurobiology of decision making processes which may be altered in populations at risk for developing addictive disorders or populations already diagnosed with addictive disorders.

This academic year I have three undergraduates – Melisa Menceloglu, Michael Parrish, and Scott Oppler – working with me. Their projects demonstrate the range of approaches we use to understand human behavior. Melisa and Michael are assisting me on a neuroimaging project to understand neural circuit differences across individuals which may modulate the behavior we study. Scott, on the other hand, has been helping me investigate how genetic polymorphisms affecting dopamine levels in humans impact their behavior.

Michael Parrish  BS Psychology/ BS Biology

Michael Parrish
BS Psychology/ BS Biology

Scott Oppler  BS Psychology & Biology Melissa Menceloglu BA Psychology

Scott Oppler
BS Psychology & Biology
Melisa Menceloglu
BA Psychology

How UNC Undergraduate Students Are An Asset to My Work:

While working with UNC-CH undergraduate students, I have learned that they are all extremely bright, self-motivated, and eager to learn new things. They have assisted me greatly in the work I have been doing over the years. For example we have been looking at the role of age and genetic polymorphisms on human behavior. Specifically, a person’s age (emerging adult versus adult) appears to determine which particular genetic variations may be associated with a tendency to value the future less: a process we believe is implicated in promoting and sustaining alcohol use disorders. A total of 4 UNC-CH undergrads were      acknowledged in the paper (in Psychopharmacology) focused on this project.

The Importance of Undergraduate Research Experiences:

 Getting experience with scientific research is the best way to know whether or not pursuing a career in science is right for you. I was able to take advantage of undergraduate research at Furman University while I pursued my Bachelor’s Degree in Neuroscience. My early work, looking at the impact of alcohol and the neuropeptide beta-endorphin on stress and anxiety behavior in mice, was critical in inspiring me to apply to PhD programs focused on the neurobiology of drug abuse and behaviors associated with problem drug use. Conducting original science is a difficult enterprise and nothing prepares someone more for understanding the process better than doing it firsthand, which is the value of pursuing research opportunities early.

I encourage anyone remotely interested in the scientific process to think about volunteering in one of the hundreds of labs at UNC-CH. This is a great place to explore a vast array of research topics and areas. In labs affiliated with the Neurobiology Curriculum, for instance, one can experience the various approaches researchers take to understanding the brain and behavior from animal models to humans, from intracellular signaling in individual neurons to widespread neural activity as measured by functional magnetic resonance imaging.

Links to publications of my work (containing acknowledgements to many UNC undergraduate students that have helped out over the years):

Smith CT, Boettiger CA (2012) Age modulates the effect of COMT genotype on delay discounting behavior. Psychopharmacology (Berl). 222: 609-617.


Smith CT, Swift-Scanlan T, Boettiger CA (2013). Genetic polymorphisms regulating dopamine signaling in the frontal cortex interact to affect target detection under high working memory load. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, in press.


Other papers of Interest from our lab: