By Keely Savoie
Exposure to smoke during a certain window in a mouse’s pregnancy can cause her pups to show autism-like behaviors. An accumulation of tau proteins in the glial cells of a fruit fly’s brain can cause the neurons around those cells die.
In both cases, cells in the brain are responding to their environment and communicating — to their detriment — with other cells in the body. The pregnant mouse’s brain is communicating with the brain of her developing fetus. The fly’s protein-jammed glial cells are somehow prompting the neurons that surround them to die. But how? But why?
What are the mechanisms at work when the brain breaks down?
Probing the answers to questions like these — and many more — is the purview of Mount Holyoke’s expanding program in neuroscience.
“The Neuroscience and Behavior Program here is truly interdisciplinary, and is made up faculty from the departments of chemistry, biology and psychology, as well as recent and forthcoming hires to the neuroscience and behavior program itself,” said Gary Gillis, associate dean of faculty. “Having this breadth and depth of expertise allows our students to approach the study of the nervous system from many perspectives and to tailor their major to suit their interests, whether they involve molecular-level mechanisms, processes associated with learning, memory and cognition, animal behavior or human health.”
The program, combined with the faculty’s commitment to including Mount Holyoke students with their research and encouraging students to pursue their own questions in the lab, has led to tremendous successes for the neuroscience students at the College.
A Mount Holyoke contingent of neuroscience students led by faculty members Jared Schwartzer, assistant professor of psychology and education, and Kenneth Colodner, assistant professor of neuroscience and behavior, recently returned from the Northeast Under/graduate Research Organization for Neuroscience (NEURON) conference.
Simply put, Mount Holyoke students blew the competition out of the water. Three members of the class of 2018, Ann Baako, Van Trinh and Maddy Berkowitz-Cerasano, took three of the four prizes.
“They’re getting tired of us coming. Our students are always presenting with a level of confidence and an understanding of the material that other schools don’t seem to match,” said Schwartzer, who investigates the impact of a mother’s immune system on its offspring’s behavior. Schwartzer’s recent publication furthers his findings that maternal immune activation has behavioral effects in the offspring.
“When the judges come they ask the students about the data, to think about it, to explain it, and our students do really well at that because they are fundamentally engaged in the project and they own their projects,” said Colodner, who studies how the accumulation of tau proteins can lead to neuronal death. “Our students always stand out. Their involvement and deep understanding of the work comes through in their presentations, and that shows in their recognition from the judges.”
Berkowitz-Cerasano, Schwartzer’s protegé, presented her work on how allergies and asthma in a pregnant mouse can predispose the offspring to allergies and asthma, as well as behavioral deficits like increased anxiety.
“It’s important because we’re seeing three major epidemics with asthma, autism, and ADHD, and we think that it might be some links between all that,” said Schwartzer. “Maddy’s work is showing that if the incidents are just a few, the mice can overcome it, but they can’t handle multiple exposures.”
Trinh presented her research on how tau protein disrupts glial cells during fruit fly larval development. Using immunofluorescence and genetic tools, Trinh is able to visualize how tau proteins can activate a cell death pathway. Her work is an effort to get a better understanding of how glial-neuronal signaling is affected in diseases such as Alzheimer's disease, which is marked by build-ups of tau protein in the brain. Colodner hopes to help prepare her work for publication over the summer.
Baako, who is from Accra, Ghana, presented her research in fruit flies that probed what was happening at the molecular level in neurodegenerative diseases such as chronic traumatic encephalopathy and Alzheimer’s disease. To Baako, the conference was a chance to showcase her work and build her presentation skills.
“Presenting at this conference was just as much of a challenge to myself as it was a great opportunity to let people know about the exciting research that I had worked on,” she said, adding that her Mount Holyoke professors helped her think strategically about her academic goals and gave her the knowledge, skills and confidence to succeed.
It was her second time attending the conference, but the prospect of presenting added an additional frisson of excitement for her. “I was almost as excited as the first time, except that this time there was some slight tension because I was going to be presenting. It turned out to be quite thrilling,” she said.
This summer Baako is taking a break while waiting to hear back from various research assistant positions that she has applied to.
“I’m using the next two years to decide whether or not research is a field I wish to remain in and then I’ll take it from there,” she said. “I definitely see myself going back home to Ghana to engage in some teaching and mentoring activities in the long term.”
After the conference, the Mount Holyoke contingent went out for ice cream to celebrate.
“There were about 25 Mount Holyoke students all piled into this little ice cream shop and we’re celebrating our success as a school and also the success of Maddy, Van and Ann,” said Colodner. “The whole day was like a big fun camp day.”
Thrills, success, strategy, preparation, collaboration: hallmarks of the Mount Holyoke experience, and that of the neuroscience and behavior program.
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