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Binghamton University biology major Ezra Gutmann and neuroscience major Aidan Papalia work on research that determines neuro transmitter loss in Parkinson's disease under the direction of research educator Corinne Kiessling in a Science 4 laboratory. They are part of the Freshman Research Immersion (FRI) program, which provides first-year students with a year-long authentic research experience in sciences and engineering. A summer pilot for the already established program was held in 2015, and two research streams were added to the program for fall 2015: image and acoustic signals analysis and biomedical chemistry joined the neuroscience, biofilms and smart energy streams.
Photo by Jonathan Cohen
Incoming students get head start on research
August 13, 2015Tweet
Corinne Kiessling loves both teaching and research, so when the Freshman Research Immersion (FRI) program, designed to provide research experiences to a select group of incoming students, came along, it was the perfect way for her to blend the two. She teaches incoming freshman how to do research – and by all accounts, the first year of the program hit a home run.
Kiessling earned her doctorate at Binghamton conducting Parkinson’s disease research in psychology Professor Christopher Bishop’s lab, and as a post-doc is a research educator for the FRI neuroscience stream.
“I guide the experiments and am responsible for the day-to-day operations of the lab, teaching students how to perform the research. I make sure all goes as smoothly as possible,” she said. “I teach but also help with the research.”
Bishop teams with psychology Professors Terrence Deak and Lisa Savage to oversee the FRI neuroscience stream, helping Kiessling to develop plans of how to work with students who have no wet-lab science background.
Allison Halat and Max Kesten were two of the 30 students in the first cohort of the neuroscience stream, all working on a motor and cognitive deficits study that could advance our understanding of how best to treat Parkinson’s patients.
Halat chose to enter the FRI program because she saw it as a rare opportunity that would be advantageous when she began to pursue other research positions at Binghamton.
“No other school I was considering offered an introduction into research in such a structured manner,” she said. “I’m from out of state and I chose to apply to Binghamton specifically for its research opportunities so this seemed like the icing on the cake.”
Kesten had conducted some research in high school, and he echoed Halat’s sentiments about the program being a determining factor in choosing to enroll at Binghamton: “When I was invited, it actually helped me make my decision about coming to Binghamton because I wanted to do research, and doing it early in my college career would be awesome.”
To get their start in the lab, the students were divided into groups of two to three and each worked with a graduate student TA and two undergrad TAs, Kiessling said.
“Each day, we would teach a behavioral test to the students and they would practice until they were proficient,” she said. “Each group had its own rats and we would demonstrate the technique, watch them perform it and then they would do it on their own. Students ran 12 different behavioral tests, some motor, some cognitive and some both at the same time.”
Every student learned each of the 12 behavioral tests – unusual even for more seasoned students. “We were learning as we were going with a lot of talking about the whys of what we were doing,” she said.
The program provided “building blocks” of scientific research, Halat said. Instead of demanding 10 to 15 hours a week in the lab, the FRI program offered the benefits and experience of university research by lessening the commitment requirements (around six hours the second semester, and a minimum of six the third semester) and giving more hands-on and one-on-one instruction from professors.
“Initially having less time-intensive lab experience was very appealing to me so I wasn’t overwhelmed and the fundamentals could be learned,” Halat said. “It was challenging learning the new material but really rewarding once I came to have an understanding of it.”
The first semester was somewhat basic in its principles but taught us skills in public speaking, poster creation and presentation and overall how to communicate with others in the scientific field, Halat added. “But learning something new in lecture the second semester was always an exciting experience because I quickly developed a passion for neuroscience.
“Every class was a learning experience because of the array of both cognitive and motor tests that we performed. In a normal lab and even at the PhD level, students often only learn about and study one or two tests for experimentation,” she said. “We conducted over 10 different tests and the uniqueness of the situation was impressed upon us through all our instructors so I felt honored to be part of the program.”
“The second semester was unlike anything I had ever done, working with the rats,” Kesten said. “There was a lot of training just to be allowed to work with them, and it’s exciting to know that my work was actually meaningful and going somewhere. I realized I had to work hard to do my best.”
“There was a deep sense of purpose that I brought with me every time I entered the lab knowing that the work and effort I put in was going toward a larger research goal,” Halat said. “Additionally the rareness of being a freshman within a functioning lab at Binghamton made me proud to accomplish the work and conduct all the tests.”
Halat and Kesten found different aspects of the program difficult – for Halat it was mastering how to read scientific papers. “I feel like I developed scientific literacy and the program forced me to work hard in order to gain those skills.”
For Kesten it was designing a project for the third semester of the program, which involved a great deal of detailed preparation. “It was a lot of work,” he said, “but also it was what scientists have to go through to achieve results.”
However, both claimed working with the rats as a program highlight.
“Over time I grew to have a deep appreciation of them as subjects and lab animals,” Halat said. “As lab animals they are ideal for the testing that we needed to do and a standard within the fields.”
“In reality rats are very nice, calm creatures and easy to work with and you get close to them,” Kesten said. “My favorite part of the program was showing myself that when you’re more open to new experiences and ideas, you grow and it’s not necessarily what you would expect.
“I thought our results were really interesting because at the end when we pooled all our data we made two big graphs and it was really cool to see it all put together,” said Kesten. “The results we found were not exactly what we were expecting, but it’s still OK because we figured out what happened and it makes sense. Getting to see the end product makes it all worth it.”
At end of the second (spring) semester, each student had to write a proposal about where to take the research in the third (upcoming fall) semester. “Some are asking similar questions, and others different ones, either looking at motor or learning in a rodent model,” Kiessling said. “The neat thing about the fall is they got to say what they’re interested in and tailored it to a project that can be completed in one semester.”
As for the students’ second-semester research results, they essentially demonstrated how brain lesions affect rat behaviors and how this model could be used in future studies of Parkinson’s disease.
“Watching the students grow over the course of the semester was a highlight for Kiessling. “When we started, most were very worried about working with rats. It was great watching them grow, especially with freshman who don’t yet know what can and can’t be done.”
Kiessling said that the FRI program is giving students a true research experience. “There were occasional hiccups due to equipment issues, but that’s real research,” she said. “The point of this is it’s not just a prescribed class. We learn and investigate something nobody has before.”
In the fall, Halat and Kesten will work with a larger group of students studying the effect of Levodopa (L-DOPA) in dopamine-lesioned rats. “We will be testing the effects of administering L-DOPA in conjunction with two other drugs – Clonidine and Idazoxan – which target the norepinephrine systems,” Halat said. “We’re looking to see how these drugs reduce dyskinesia (involuntary movements).
“I am very excited to be exploring my own team’s research project on Parkinson’s and the drug administration of Levodopa,” Halat added. “Though we’ll still be guided by Dr. Kiessling and TAs, we’ll be much more independent and have increased responsibilities in the lab.”
Kiessling is optimistic about future progress. “This data we’re collecting, we’re hoping to be able to publish it,” she said. “What we’re working on has actual impact in the field so we’re theoretically helping the field in general, and perhaps our students will get to present at a national conference or have their names on a publication.”