A Sleepy Summer on Campus: Conducting Sleep Research, that is!

– written by Lindsey Freeman, senior SURF Recipient

As a SURF recipient this summer, I got a head start on collecting data for my senior Honors Thesis. I’m interested in investigating how different wavelengths of light (manipulated through the use of colored glasses) impact circadian rhythm, daytime energy level, and mood. Blue light emitted from artificial light sources at night can suppress melatonin synthesis, and can make people feel less tired. Theoretically, filtering out this blue light with amber-tinted glasses could mimic the effects of darkness and allow for the natural production of melatonin, despite our continuing light-emitting device usage.

To investigate the effects of these glasses, I got the chance to work with human participants. This meant that I had to draft, submit, and revise my first IRB ethics application. There was a lot of prep-work involved before I could start the protocol after Institutional Review Board (IRB) approval, though. This study uses Ecological Momentary Assessment in studying the constructs of sleep, energy, and mood, which simply means that I want to study how people are feeling in the moment, at random time points throughout the day. To achieve this, I worked with one of my faculty co-investigators to modify a programming script she had written to automatically send my survey links via text message to the participants. After some initial debugging and troubleshooting, I was able to get 14 participants completely through the 18-day protocol. For me, this meant that I had to meet with each of the participants at separate times to go over the consent form and hand out the first pair of colored glasses, meet with them again halfway through the study so that they could exchange their glasses for a second, different-colored pair, and again at the conclusion of the study for them to return their glasses and to get debriefed/compensated. Additionally, I was involved in writing more computer code to merge and clean my data files, and I was involved in conducting preliminary data analysis to lay the foundation for further analyses with a larger sample.

Lindsey Freeman

Participants were asked to send in “selfies” of themselves wearing the glasses each night to track their adherence to protocol—This is my example!

Through this experience, I gained skills working with the R programming environment (R: A language and environment for statistical computing.) for data cleaning and automating tasks. My organizational skills have also improved: I’ve had to keep track of different bursts of participants and have had to check in on their survey completion, often needing to troubleshoot if the survey technology fails to cooperate. I have also sharpened my analytical skills, brushing up on what I’ve learned in introductory statistics classes.

This project has affirmed my interest in a career dealing with psychological research. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed researching this topic and have learned a great deal from each step of the process. Although it can be frustrating sometimes, the rewards of psychological research encourage me to continue conducting research to some degree in the future. Depending on the results of this study (which is still ongoing), I would love to conduct future research to see how amber-lensed glasses perform in clinical populations (particularly in those with bipolar disorder or depression, including post-partum depression). Special thanks to Dr. Eric Youngstrom, Dr. Nisha Gottfredson, and Tate Halverson for their tremendous help with this project.

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.

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22349272

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.

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24144248

Other papers of Interest from our lab:

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16385186

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18160646

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Rats, mice and psychopaths: SURF alum Leah Townsend’s research journey

For her 2009 Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship, Leah Townsend ’11 explored perceptual differences between liberals and conservatives by providing two slightly different situations to her research subjects and asking questions that required them to articulate a moral judgment. Dr. Jesse Prinz served as her faculty advisor on the SURF project. At that point, Leah planned to go to graduate school in Philosophy. Now she’s a third year neuroscience Ph.D. student in the UNC Curriculum in Neurobiology. OUR Associate Director Donna Bickford had an opportunity to chat with Leah recently about her experiences as an undergraduate researcher and doctoral student.

Townsend (2)

Leah shared that for her the most significant result of having the SURF was that it helped her believe in herself as a person who could come up with interesting research questions, find an advisor who thought the project was cool enough to be involved with, and succeed in a competitive funding process. After the SURF, she was on track to apply to graduate schools and pursue an advanced degree in Philosophy. Leah was warned that grad school admission was ultra-competitive in her discipline and she’d formed the perception that she’d need either a publication or a major conference presentation to be taken seriously as a candidate. She was accepted to present a paper at the North Carolina Philosophy Society annual conference; she gave the paper the spring of her junior year. Leah says she discovered at the conference that the UNC Philosophy Department is fairly atypical in its interest in cognitive issues and that her passion for experimentation would be better suited elsewhere. Although she did write an Honors thesis in Philosophy, exploring morality as a secondary quality and whether psychopaths have moral agency, Leah decided not to move on to graduate school in the discipline.

Leah then took a class with Dr. Sabrina Burmeister and became interested in neuroscience. She connected with the TA for the course, Kimberly Carpenter Cox, and Leah and Kimberly devised a plan to turn a philosophy major into a competitive applicant to neuroscience PhD programs in one summer. Leah notes that the SURF experience gave her the confidence to switch fields; it wasn’t easy, but she knew she could succeed. Leah refers to that summer as “science boot camp” – she took classes and she also did research in Dr. Josephine Johns’s lab. Leah describes her initial work in the lab as “grunt-work” as she spent the summer coding videos of rats and their maternal behaviors (as a volunteer), but the diligence and commitment she demonstrated earned the trust of Dr. Johns and the senior graduate students in the lab and she then had the opportunity to do more independent research. This led to her second Honors thesis, in Psychology, which examines the effect of prenatal cocaine exposure on oxytocin receptor levels.

Leah was able to leverage her undergraduate research experience in additional ways. She was one of the students who represented UNC at the annual ACC Meeting of the Minds conference and presented her SURF research there. She found the experience very satisfying, relating that this is the “only time I ever got a standing ovation.” Leah also found the conference a great opportunity to network and build relationships; she still keeps in touch with people she met at that conference. And, Leah was invited by OUR Founding Director Dr. Pat Pukkila to serve as one of the original OUR Ambassadors, which created an avenue for her to provide information about undergraduate research to interested students and to help them develop strategies to access research experiences.

When Leah attended her graduate school interviews, she was surprised to find that interviewees were most interested in talking about her undergraduate research experience and her SURF and honors theses projects. These major research projects helped her stand out from other applicants and contributed to her acceptance to graduate school.

Leah enthusiastically pointed out that of the 12 people in her cohort, 10 are women; thus she’s contributing to efforts to reduce the gender disparity in science disciplines.

Leah is now part of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute Graduate Training program in Translational Medicine, working with research mentor, Dr. Spencer Smith, and clinical co-mentor Dr. Joseph Piven.  She studies autism and notes that although there are between 400-1000 genes implicated in autism, they manifest similar behavioral patterns. How do these mutations produce the cluster of behaviors that we call autism? Leah discusses the importance of beginning to think about disease in new ways, going beyond the mindset of single genes causing diseases to considering the larger impact of those genetic mutations on cortical circuitry. She’s digging into the actual disordered circuitry by investigating the development of visual circuitry in mouse models of autism. The Smith lab and Leah’s work in mouse models might provide ideas about what to look for in patients and thus impact clinical practice and protocols.

In a note of advice for prospective or current undergraduate researchers who are contributing to larger projects, Leah stresses that it’s extremely important for anyone doing undergraduate research to take responsibility for their work and to feel some sense of accountability for the project, even if it’s “just” a class project. She has seen students treat their work casually, not recognizing significance of what they’re doing and the impact it has on the larger project, which is often someone’s life work. Being a careful and responsible researcher is especially important for undergraduates who might want a letter of recommendation.

When asked if her future included clinical practice or a research path, Leah observed that she would like to stay in academics, and is certain that anything she does will include some component of community outreach. Leah finds it critically important to participate in efforts to communicate science to non-scientists. To that end, she is one of the contributors at a Museum After-Hours event at the Durham Museum of Life & Science. Brains will be held on October 17, 2013 (register here). Food trucks will be on hand and adult beverages will be available for purchase. There will be lots of different scientists in attendance talking about various aspects of brains and neuroscience. Leah will be discussing autism facts and myths, including debunking misperceptions about autism and vaccines.