Philosophy of Scholarship:

Cellular and Molecular Neurobiology Research with Undergraduates at Agnes Scott

One of the exciting aspects of science is that scientific research can be made accessible to learners at various stages of their academic career. The engagement of students in scientific research not only enhances the project itself, but, it also enhances the educational experience of the students involved in the project, imparting critical thinking skills and a deeper understanding of neurobiology through a hands-on approach.

The scientific details of my research project can be found here. In short, we exploring the effects of loss of BLOC-1 subunits and interacting proteins on the excitatory/inhibitory (E/I) balance in the hippocampus. Loss of these proteins results in alterations of endosomal trafficking and dendritic spine morphology as well as a change in the population of parvalbumin interneurons in the hippocampus. Our work continues to explore changes in cellular function. This research is necessary as subunits of BLOC-1 and interacting proteins have been implicated in several neurodevelopmental disorders, such as schizophrenia, Rett syndrome, and autism spectrum disorders. This research project incorporates transcriptional biology, behavioral analysis, primary cell cultures, confocal microscopy, biochemical techniques, and mouse genetics. With an observable phenotype, such as a disease model, my research project can increase student’s ability to transfer the science knowledge from lectures and data gained in each experiment to a greater understanding of what happens when neurons are not functioning properly.

There are 2 ways to include undergraduates in research: (1) utilizing the lab times associated with our lectures and (2) incorporating the students into the my personal research projects.

My research supports several projects for students in my lab or in my classes. Some examples - How does a DNA modification affect molecules involved in neurodevelopment? What regulates vesicle trafficking within neurons and why is that important? How do proteins affect animal/human behavior? And how do changes in neuronal cell populations impact neuronal development?

For careers in science, students need the following skills which are can acquired in an inquiry based lab setting:

1. Ability to design an effective experiment, analyze the data with statistics, draw important conclusions, write a scientific report on the research and present the research.

2. Critically read scientific literature.

3. Apply knowledge learned in order to solve a problem.

4. Work in pairs or teams utilizing leadership skills.

5. Communicate science effectively both written and orally.


Research in Class Laboratory

(BIO 250 Introductory Neuroscience I and BIO 216 Molecular Biology)

I continue to utilize my lab times in several of my classes. Initially, I started using lab times for inquiry based, open-ended research the first time I taught Molecular Biology (now BIO 216, was BIO 316) in Fall 2014. I have Molecular Biology a total of 4 times, each time using inquiry based research as the teaching method in the Molecular Biology Lab.  This Fall (2017) is my second semester co-teaching BIO Introductory Neuroscience I (BIO 250) with Dr. Dutton. Both Dr. Dutton and myself teach our own lab section, using inquiry based, open-ended research during the labs.

In Molecular Biology and Introductory Neuroscience, students are assigned into lab research groups based on previous academic performance in science classes so that each lab research group has an equitable division of strong performers. Students are also grouped to ensure diversity. Looking at our students in STEM, Agnes Scott does not have a racial or ethnic group majority. Diversity in these lab research groups yields an overall better educational experience for each of the students. In these assigned groups, students are given background information on the type of research my lab conducts and the techniques we will be using during the semester. The groups then forms their independent hypothesis. From this very first lab period, it is evident that the students enjoy creating the hypothesis and setting the direction for what they will explore during the semester.  They take part in other aspects of research throughout the semester – writing up their results, presenting scientific data, and working with their lab research group. These research experiences allow students to determine if their future career plans should/could include research as part of their job description. These experiences also equip students with skills necessary to be competitive for summer experiences in research.

As I progress in my career, I firmly believe that experiences like the inquiry based lab research are necessary for students to understand their own personal strengths and identify potential career options they may not have considered. These experiences also equip students with skills that are necessary in any career – critical thinking, polished presentation skills, enhanced writing ability, knowledge application, understanding scientific literature, and effective teamwork strategies. Because lab work in an inquiry based setting can impart these skills, inquiry based research is a high priority for my upper level science electives. The method of inquiry based research in labs described above will be a method I continue to practice in my laboratory classes because of its necessity for experiential student learning. Currently, all upper level science classes I teach with labs have these inquiry based experiences.


Personal Lab Research

Research with students is such a high priority to me that even in my first semester, I worked with three students. From that semester forward, I have been working with students in my lab. During the week, I spend 4-6 hours with my research students in lab. Some of these students have been volunteers and some have been part of a Mentored Research class (BIO 440, BIO 380, BIO 410). Over my 5 years at Agnes Scott, I have worked with 24 students in my personal lab. The students who have participated in research in my lab and their final products can be viewed here.

Of those 24 students I have worked with:

  • 9 students are authors on a manuscripts, and 3 of those students are an author on 2 manuscripts
  • 2 students gave poster presentations in the main meeting at the annual Society for Neuroscience meeting
  • 1 student gave an oral presentation (nanosymposium) at the annual Society for Neuroscience meeting
  • 15 students gave an oral presentation at Agnes Scott's student research day, SpARC
  • 3 students gave a poster presentation at Agnes Scott's student research day, SpARC

During my 5 years at Agnes, I have published 9 peer-reviewed articles based on my research (article references and hyper links are found here). My research projects have generated four peer-reviewed primary articles and 1 peer-reviewed review article with students as co-authors on the paper. There are an additional 4 peer-reviewed primary articles published on collaborative projects with the Faundez lab at Emory and the Pozzo-Miller lab at UAB. 

During my first year at Agnes (Fall 2012 – Spring 2013), with the support of an external grant from the International Rett Syndrome Foundation, I published a manuscript with a student (Laurel (Alex) Amrbose) examining the roles of the MeCP2, a gene that is implicated in Rett Syndrome, in synaptic expression of BLOC-1 subunits using animal models and human pluripotent stem cells. I was a co-author on a manuscript that was a result of my connoted collaboration with Dr. Pozzo-Miller examining the TRPC signaling and BDNF release in the hippocampus of a Rett Syndrome mouse model. In my third publication that year, also in collaboration with Dr. Pozzo-Miller, we published a review on the recent progress of Rett Syndrome research, analyzing potential new therapeutic targets.

During my second year (Fall 2013 – Spring 2014),with the support of an external grant from the International Rett Syndrome Foundation, I published a manuscript with a student ( Kaela Singleton) that examined dosage dependent phenotypic observations due to a loss of one of the BLOC-1 subunits.

During my third year (Fall 2014 - Spring 2015), I collaborated with the Faundez lab at Emory on some of their cell biology papers. I am co-author on two papers that were published in my third year. One reported on copper sensitivity in dysbindin null animals, suggesting copper toxicity may play a role in schizophrenia. The other paper reported on NSF and dysbindin interactions as they pertain to synaptic plasticity.

During my fourth year (Fall 2015 – Spring 2016), with the support of internal grant money, I was on pre-tenure leave in the Spring and was working on an educational book about neuroscience, which is now published.

During my fifth year at Agnes (Fall 2016 – Spring 2017), with the support of internal grant money, I published a manuscript with students (Miranda Arnold, Rebecca Cross, Kaela Singleton, Hannah Rudolph, Martha Vorder Bruegge, Andrea Sweatmen, Cecilia Garza, and Eli Whisnant) that examined the role impact of BLOC-1 expression on GABAergic interneuron expression in the hippocampus. I also worked with Hannah Rudolph to publish a review of similar genetic mutations in the endosomal pathway observed between Autism Spectrum Disorder and Schizophrenia. Finally, I published my third manuscript of the year with students (Miranda Arnold, Kaela Singleton, and Rebecca Cross) describing the role of BLOC-1 assoiated neuronal AGAP1 in endosomal trafficking and dendritic morphology and outgrowth.

As I move forward in my career, I am committed to continuing independent research in my lab, as well as using that research to generate publications and SpARC presentations. The more we can engage students in research projects, the stronger their education will be. Experiences like this allow students to identify what they want out of their future careers and prepares them for additional experiences that are necessary for further education. I will continue to offer Mentored Research (BIO 440) sections, allowing students the opportunity for inquiry based research. I will also continue to publish my results in respected peer-reviewed journals.