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Student researches neurons key to memory formation

August 21, 2013

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    Image of a hippocampal dendrite.

During the summer, Lewis & Clark students continue to work hard in their fields of study. By collaborating with faculty on research projects, students are able to engage their curiosity, expand their learning, and prepare for life after college, all while making meaningful contributions to scholarship.

Sarah Lowenstein ’15 is working with Professor of Chemistry Janis Lochner to research neuronal proteins and memory formation using high-resolution microscopy. In the following Q&A, Lowenstein reflects on her experience:

What are you researching? What question or problem are you trying to answer/solve with your research?

Our lab focuses on identifying the molecular mechanism of dense core granule (DCG) release in hippocampal neurons. This summer we are trying to determine the identity of the neuronal protein that contributes to DCG release. We will attempt to answer this question by knocking down the levels of specific proteins and evaluating neuronal proteins with florescent proteins. Once the constructs are complete, the significance of each neuronal protein in relation to DCG release will be determined using an enzyme-linked immune sorbent assay and high-resolution microscopy.

Does your research have any potential applications in the real world, or will it influence other work in your field?

Understanding the molecular mechanism of DCG release could help in further understanding memory formation. It has been determined that when the release of neuromodulatory proteins—such as brain derived neurotrophic factor—are inhibited, memory formation diminishes significantly. In addition to memory, neuromodulatory proteins have been proposed to influence addiction, depression, and anxiety. Therefore, determining the molecular mechanism of DCG release could help address several mental health disorders.

Is any of your research taking place off campus? If so, what’s that experience like?

Most of the research I am conducting this summer takes place at Lewis & Clark. However, the Banker lab at the Jungers Center for Neuroscience Research at Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU) supplies the hippocampal neurons that we use in our studies. In addition, we use a super-resolution microscope at the Advanced Light Microscopy Core at the Jungers Center for studying DCG localization. Overall, it has been interesting observing the different laboratory atmospheres at Lewis & Clark and OHSU.

What first sparked your interest in this research area?

My organic chemistry and psychology courses as well as my curiosity for biological sciences sparked my interest in neurochemistry. My favorite aspect of organic chemistry was learning about the mechanistic properties of functional groups, and applying that to my knowledge of cell and molecular biology. My psychology courses sparked my interest in the functions of the brain; however, I yearned to further understand the molecular mechanism behind particular psychological behaviors. The combination of my chemistry, psychology, and biology courses has led to my interest in neurochemistry, as I am fascinated by molecular mechanisms and their biological significance.

How has working closely with faculty influenced your education?

The most valuable part of the Rogers Science Research Program is the ability to work with faculty. Professor Lochner has been an immense resource for me in expanding my knowledge and interest in biochemistry. Working closely with faculty allows students to become an active member of the lab, as opposed to a lab technician. As I become accustomed to the background behind Professor Lochner’s research, I am given more independence in completing tasks and discussing future research. Working in her lab has provided me with the experience of being a scientist, and I hope to continue working in the lab to further my research skills. 

How do you hope your experiences this summer will impact your future studies or professional pursuits?

My experience conducting research this summer has made me more enthusiastic about completing a thesis and pursuing a career in the sciences. In addition, I hope to continue working in the lab throughout the rest of my undergraduate career as an independent study project. Overall, my experience this summer has made me more excited to continue studying biochemistry and molecular biology in college and beyond. I encourage students to pursue summer research with faculty at Lewis & Clark because it is an unforgettable experience.

About the program

The John S. Rogers Science Research Program allows students to participate in graduate-level research with an emphasis on strengthening their communication skills by requiring them to present their findings. This summer, 40 students are pursuing topics that range from artificial intelligence and motivating behavior to holographic tweezers and zebra fish. Working closely with peers and faculty members, students undertake research questions and present their work in two public venues.

“We’re not asking you, ‘What’s the answer?’ We’re saying, ‘What’s the question?’” said Michael Broide, director of the Rogers program and chair of the physics department. “I think what sets our program apart is that regardless of what project you are on, we’re all going to come together as a group to present what we’re doing in as accessible a way as possible. In science, it’s such an important skill to be able to explain cogently what you’re doing.”

Students make their final research presentation at the Rogers summer science poster session, held in conjunction with the Science Without Limits Symposium. Scheduled for September 18, the poster session is free and open to the public.

Department of Chemistry Rogers Summer Research Projects

Zibby Pillote ’14 contributed to this story.