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News and Media

Students and Faculty Take on Key Studies Together

Nov. 30, 2012

By Erich Burnett

Assistant Professor Tracie Paine (left) with student researchers Avery O'Hara and Krissy Welch

It’s been a few years since Avery O’Hara arrived at her decision to attend Oberlin, but she still readily recalls what set it apart from the rest: “It’s a rare liberal arts school that has a strong research program.”

Nowadays, when the third-year neuroscience major from Palo Alto, California, checks in with friends on other campuses, she hears tales of elusive faculty members and labs led by post-doctoral students. It all sounds nothing like her experience at Oberlin.

“I’ll talk to people about what I’m doing here and they’ll say, ‘You have actual contact with your professor? Wow.’ And that’s how it is every day here.”

This semester, O’Hara is paired with fellow third-year student Krissy Welch for the late stages of a study rooted in Pavlovian conditioning as it relates to drug abuse. Together with Assistant Professor Tracie Paine, they are preparing data for a report slated for publication in a neuroscience journal next year. Their experience is just like that of countless other Oberlin students who take part in research alongside their professors—in chemistry labs and in local streams—on a regular basis.

“Students at Oberlin are so bright and motivated, it’s easy to incorporate them into a research program,” says Lynne Bianchi, an associate professor of neuroscience. “Their contributions are very valuable, and they often result in original research findings.” A recent issue of Development, a highly regarded neuroscience journal, featured a report co-authored by three former honor students led by Bianchi.

“Sometimes it takes a while for the results to be published,” she says, “but eventually students get the credit for the work they do.”

Now in its third year, Tracie Paine’s study with Welch and O’Hara aims to discern how various cues influence impulsivity and what parts of the brain are affected by those cues. For the purposes of their research, the cues involved are an ever-blinking bicycle light and a steadily droning metronome—rudimentary stand-ins for frantic club lights and dance music. The drug in question is cocaine, chosen for its pervasive use and similarity to other commonly abused drugs.

“The big issue is how to prevent relapse,” says Paine. “You can lock an addict in a room and—boom!—they’re clean. The question is, what happens when they return to the real world?”

Welch and O’Hara are the third set of students to take part in the impulsivity study, which began during the 2010-11 academic year. Prior to beginning any lab work, Paine guides all students through a comprehensive study of related literature and provides intensive training that continues throughout the project. O’Hara and Welch praise Paine for her meticulous preparation and unyielding support of their efforts.
“Tracie tries to make sure it’s not too overwhelming, which is very helpful,” says Welch, a native of Flint, Michigan. “One of the things that’s so great about working directly with professors is that they have so much knowledge to share, and Tracie never lets you feel like you’re asking a dumb question.”

Paine and her student researchers completed their report in November. Now they’re turning their attention to schizophrenia—specifically a three-year project that has earned funding from the National Institutes of Health. Their focus is on how abnormal neurotransmitters affect the symptoms of schizophrenia, and how pharmacotherapies could help.

“With schizophrenia, we know the neurotransmitters in the brain are abnormal. How that abnormality controls the symptoms is unknown,” says Paine, whose students will monitor how various drugs interact with the brain. “Ultimately, if we find these drugs are affecting neurons, perhaps someone could develop a drug to help.”

And perhaps it could be O’Hara or Welch, or another Obie researcher, who makes the vital breakthrough someday.

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