Well things are nearing the end but certainly not winding down. My advisor joked at the beginning of the summer that we would be a little squeezed for time here at the end. I should have taken her more seriously. I feel like I have done at least a year's worth of research and packed it into 3 months.
We ran all of the statistical analysis on the behavioral data. I had significant results! This is very exciting. It showed that my worker rats spent a significantly more amount of time persisting at an impossible task than the trust fund rats. This showed that the worker rats have less depressive symptoms than the trust fund rats. That is exactly what I want! I am very excited.
These past two weeks have been dedicated to brain slices. Who would have thought that something so tiny (about 1 cm long) would be so important. We have a bout 5,000 brain slices. Each one has to be stained so we can see the cells we are looking at, then it has to be placed onto a slide. This process takes forever because the brain tissue is so delcate and thin (40 microns thin to be exact). To give you a mental picture if you were to walk into the lab you would see all of us hunched over tables with a paint brush in our hands delicately teasing apart the folds and twists in the miniscule tissue. This picture remains the same for eight to nine hours a day. It is very meticulous. However, I have found an enjoyment in it. It feels very victorious when you have been working on one slice for a good 20 minutes and you finally get it all flat and straightened out. I know this sounds strange but when you have been working on something for such a long time you get a little sucked into it.
We finally got enough brain slices onto slides to at least finish our SURF projects. There are still a ton of slices but we will deal with those later. At the end of this week we started neuroimaging. We use very expensive microscopes and computer software to count the stained cells in each individual slice. The staining isn't perfect (it is impossible to be perfect) so this feels like guess work sometimes. But I suppose that is why you have a doctorate when you are supervising these types of things.
This weekend is devoted to finishing my paper and the final neuroimaging. It is definitely crunch time!
This week has gone by a lot faster than I expected. This is my final week of training the rats so it is really crunch time to make sure that their brains have had ample opportunity to form important connections. I am trying to challenge them while they are doing their digging for their froot loop rewards. Now this may not sound very exciting to some of you but I am very enthusiastica bout it. So what I have been doing is making creative patterns with the mounds that the fruit loops are buried in. There are four mounds and usually they are in either a square or a diamond. This week I have been changing it to completely new patterns every day. Here is the exciting part.....The rats have never performed better! They are diggin faster and more efficiently than ever before. It is also good for them because it means they can come off of their food restrictive diets. They like to gorge themselves so I keep them on low food so they stay motivated to dig for the froot loops. Since they are performing so well now they can have as much food as they want!
When the rats perform well on their work task that gives me a lot of hope that their brains are forming the connections that I was hoping they would. For my study to have ANY significance whatsoever I need to see those patterns and connections formed. Dr. Lambert just published a book on the effort based reward theory so she often jokes about the importance of my study being significant. She says "No pressure Molly!" and then laughs. As funny as it is I am definitely feeling pressure to have significiant results. This, I am learning, is a constant pressure that the scientific researcher suffers from. We spend all of this money and slave away our lives to a bunch of rats hoping that the significance levels will be below .05. There is a running joke amongst psychology researshers about significant levels being .055. It rounds up to .06 and is therefore insignificant. Well you just wasted however many thousands of dollars and hours of your life. GREAT! So the pressure is ALWAYS on.
Now for the explanation of the headline of this entry. Monday of this week was different. Stephanie Karsner, who is another SURF student in Dr. Lambert's lab, went on vacation this past weekend so she was not back until Tuesday. Since she was gone I was asked to help her research partner, Eddie Tu, with the mouse study. For their study they are looking at paternal behavior in two mouse species; Peromiscus californicus and Peromiscus maniculatus. The californicus are monogomos so the father mouse shares the parent responsibilities with the mother mouse. The maniculatus, a smaller mouse, is polygomous and DOES NOT exhibit any paternal behavior. In fact the maniculatus will often kill the pups. So for the mouse study you put a virgin male in with a pup an record the behavior. Unfortunately on the day that I was helping we were looking at the maniculatus. So the pups were put under a protective shield (aka tupperware. Ha). Eddie and I have to grab the mouse out of it's regular cage and put it in the test cage and then observe it's behavior for ten minutes. This seems pretty easy until you take into account the fact that these mice are tiny and FAST. Oh and they like to bite as well. So it becomes an art being able to snatch these little mice out of their cage. Eddie was pretty good at it (he has had weeks of practice) needless to say I was not. So I was bit many times and the mouse jumped out of my hand and ran under the shelf many times. This was extremely nerve racking for me. These cute, tiny little mice quickly became my enemy. So for three painstaking hours I chased those mice around the mouse room, was bit at least five times, and felt my adrenaline shoot through the roof every time I thought a pup was about to be attacked.
Luckily, everything went well. All of the mice were returned, biting, to their cages and all of the pups were happily reunited with their mothers. However, I have learned a valuable lesson. Mice may be cute but rats are smarter, nicer, and overall more cuddely. As well as having more personality. At least in my opinion. So I never thought I would say this but I am thankful for rats.
We are half way through SURF and I am finally catching up on my blog. SURF so far has been a whirlwind. I was really excited to be a part of this program. Dr. Lambert (my SURF advisor) just recieved a lot of funds to finally build herself a decent lab. It is amazing the things that students were able to research with just her office and a storage room for the previous lab. Now we have a gorgeous space in the basement of the Psychology wing! All of the newest research technology is available and I get to be one of the first students to access it. Lucky Me!
For my SURF project I am looking at the theory of Effort-Based Reward. This theory suggests that if you make a physical effort for a desired reward it will decrease depressive symptoms. Basically being able to work for a reward will make you happier. The theory explains why in our modern world with everything being so convenient there is still so much depression. There are some key brain areas that I will be looking at. The nucleus accumbens which is involved in reward and motivation. I will train two groups of rats, my "worker" rats and my "trust fund" rats. Yes, I do mean "trust fund" as in they don't have to do anything for their rewards. The "worker" rats on the other hand have to dig for their reward. The reward comes in the form of Froot Loops. Rats will do almost anything for a Froot Loop. After four weeks of training I am going to give the rats a persistence test as well as look at the areas in the brain that are involved with the Effort-based reward theory. Mainly the nucleus accumbens. Hopefully, the worker rats will persist longer in the impossible taske and have more activation in their reward circuit.
Our fist week of SURF was a lot of unpacking. With the lab being bran new and with lots of new equipment being shipped in we basically had to set everything up. We received the animals that same week so there was a lot going on. There were a few minor kinks we had to work out. For example we accidently put rat cage lids on top of the mouse cages and before we new it there were mice running around on the floor. Disaster was averted and we got them into the right cages. It was definitely exciting.
The second week of SURF I attended an International Behavioral Neuroscience Society conference. Once again lucky me, the conference was in St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands. I was honored that Dr. Lambert asked me to go and present a poster. I was the only undergraduate student there so I was nervous at first but I think things went well. St. Thomas was very nice but a little pricey for my college students budget. Luckily I did manage to squeeze in some beach time.
Since that week it has been non stop in the lab. There are always animals to be trained, brains to be stained, and cages to be washed. This week I have been helping out with staining the mouse brains that two other SURF students (Stephanie Karsner and Eddie Tu) have been working with. It is a tedious process that has to be perfectly timed and very exact. I have come home with a tense back and cramped hands for that last couple of nights. It is amazing though that we can see these brains areas and know what they are for and to see how they are being changed through our research.
Hopefully this caught everyone up on what I have been doing so far! I will do my best to keep my blog updated from now on!