Department of Psychological + Brain Sciences
If you happened to be browsing in the January issue of the journal Current Biology, you may have paused at the unusually long list of authors of the paper, “Working Memory Systems in the Rat.”
Even more unusual about the list of fourteen authors is the number of students who are on it. Eleven in all, they include a high school student, nine undergraduates and one graduate student—all members of PBS professor Jonathon Crystal’s Comparative Cognition Lab. The lead author, Alex Bratch, was a senior during the project. The paper was part of the honors thesis he wrote before heading off to the University of Minnesota to pursue a Ph.D. in psychology.
Why so many student researchers on this study?
The answer is simple. “It would have been impossible,” says Crystal, “to do this work without a team of students who served as experimenters.” Unlike most of Crystal’s studies, which are computer-automated, this one required manual labor, the presence of an individual in the lab all day, five days a week for a full year. As such it allowed the students to connect with the experimental process in a way they don’t typically have a chance to do, “an opportunity to watch science unfold live, at the ground floor, so to speak.”
Crystal’s research program is making a prolific contribution to an understanding of animal memory critical to developing new treatments for conditions such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, PTSD and depression. In the past few years, Crystal’s lab has been exploring the question of whether animals used as models for testing new therapeutic treatments for memory impairment share some of the more complex features of the human memory systems affected in these illnesses.
Crystal and his collaborators have shown, for example, that rats possess what is called “source memory,” knowing how they came to acquire certain information, such as where, when or with whom they first learned it. Now they have shown that, like humans, rats have independent systems for processing different kinds of information, a feature of “working memory” which enables them to remember and retain two types of information at once, audio and visual, for example, in humans, olfactory and spatial/visual in rats.
Yet within this larger scientific journey about which Crystal is passionate are the journeys of its student authors, each at a different stage in their academic and professional lives. Crystal is equally passionate about providing them with the research opportunities in the lab, which as the students describe them are an extraordinary gateway into the world of scientific discovery. And having begun this journey “at the ground floor,” they are now making their way to the upper stories.
Jie-En Wu, a Bloomington High School North senior, was initially placed in Crystal’s lab the summer before her senior year as a participant in project STEM, a program that brings high school students into the labs of IU scientists. The work she did in the study—what Crystal described as “the marathon part of the experiment”—involved testing the memory of the rats for up to 101 different scents (which they more often than not remembered!).
Wu had originally planned to study biology or chemistry before going to medical school, but has, since working in the lab, decided to major in neuroscience. She has remained in the lab during her senior year as part of her “senior internship,” working closely with other lab members to assist in Crystal’s research.
Working at the lab every day, she says, “it’s definitely a lot different than if I was sitting in class taking notes” and is an invaluable way to learn what the future she envisions for herself in medicine or research would be like.
Stefan Dalecki, a STARS student (a Science, Technology and Research Scholar) at IU, was able to begin working in a lab his freshman year. He chose Crystal’s lab because working with animals to study issues that could help address Alzheimer’s and other conditions with severe memory impairment greatly appealed to him.
Running the experiment, he explains, requires you to be very focused and for this particular project, “You had to have your full attention on what is happening to collect accurate data.” The project in fact led him to play an even larger role in another study, conducting his own experiment, which he later presented at a national conference for undergraduate research. “That I could put my stamp on the work in this way was the most satisfying part of this project.” It was also, he adds with a smile, an opportunity to be “doing grad student stuff without a lot of the stress and responsibility of being a grad student.” Now a sophomore, he sees this work as the gateway to many possible future careers before he settles on a single path.
For PBS senior Alexander Bratch the project was more than a stepping stone; it was a bridge to the next phase of his career, providing the material for an honors thesis and a major publication before he entered one of the best graduate psychology programs in the country. The series of skills it helped him develop—“in designing experiments, in writing various kinds of scientific documents, and presenting research at an international conference”—not to mention the more intangible qualities it helped to instill, what Bratch describes as the unyielding patience needed in the course of an experiment, “not to rush, but to step back and fully understand your data before planning the next steps in your design”—to these he attributes much of his own success.
Psychological + Brain Sciences