July 15, 2014

Summer student research: The making of memories

Sarah Lowenstein ’15 and Holly Thomson ’16 have been working with Pamplin Professor of Science Janis Lochner to study the science behind memory formation.

During the summer months, Lewis & Clark students remain closely engaged with their fields of study, and many make meaningful contributions to scholarship by collaborating with faculty on innovative research.

Sarah Lowenstein ’15 and Holly Thomson ’16 have been working with Dr. Robert B. Pamplin Jr. Professor of Science Janis Lochner to study the science behind memory formation. They reflect on this experience in the following Q&A.

What are you researching?

We are interested in the biochemical events that occur during long-term memory formation. The encoding of long-term memories relies on molecular changes that strengthen communication between cells in a region of the brain called the hippocampus. Neuromodulatory proteins released from dense-core vesicles (DCVs) in the hippocampus facilitate many of the changes that lead to synaptic strengthening. In particular, we seek to identify proteins that facilitate release of neuromodulatory proteins from DCVs.

What initially sparked your interest in this project, and how does it relate to your previous coursework?

This line of research is immediately fascinating, whereas memories are crucial components of personal identity and perception of the world. As students of biochemistry, we are compelled by the possibility of understanding the complex processes that underlie memory formation. Our courses in the biochemistry and molecular biology major have encouraged us to seek out the molecular underpinnings of biological processes.

How has your Lewis & Clark education been enhanced by close collaboration with faculty?

Collaborating with Professor Lochner has sharpened our scientific curiosity, as well as our ability to ask questions and interpret the information we collect in pursuit of those questions. We are simultaneously guided and challenged by Professor Lochner, allowing us to gain confidence and independence.

Does your research have potential to be applied in the real world or to influence other work in your field?

Our research will contribute to the field of neuroscience by discerning the machinery necessary for neuromodulatory protein release from dense-core vesicles. It has been determined that mutations in neuromodulatory proteins result in significant memory deficits, and these proteins are also implicated in depression. Thus, manipulation of neuromodulatory protein release can both enhance memory formation and decrease symptoms of depression.

How will this research experience hopefully impact your future studies or professional pursuits?

Sarah: I plan on pursuing an MD/PhD to both conduct research in neuroscience and practice clinical medicine. Conducting neurochemistry research in Professor Lochner’s lab has inspired me—and given me tools—to pursue a career in science research and medicine.

Holly: Upon graduation, I plan to pursue further education in science or medicine. As a result of this research experience, I have developed scientific problem-solving skills that I know will be invaluable no matter what direction I choose to take.

About the Rogers Science Research Program

The John S. Rogers Science Research Program allows students to pursue graduate-level research in the natural and mathematical sciences. It emphasizes strong communication skills, requiring students to publicly present their findings. This summer, more than 50 students are being sponsored to study such topics as memory formation, cybersecurity, and the impact of nicotine on flies.

“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 presentations at the Rogers summer science poster session, held in conjunction with the Science Without Limits Symposium. Scheduled for September 17, the poster session is free and open to the public.

Katrina Staaf ’16 contributed to this story.

Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Neuroscience Program Rogers Summer Research Projects