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September 18th, 2023
A word with a SSuRF fellow: What CURCA means to one psychology major & her professor
After developing an increased interest in an independent study project during the spring of her junior year, Psychology major Jamie Gross ’24 decided to use her summer, and the prestigious summer funding opportunity offered by Westfield State University’s Center for Undergraduate Research and Creative Activity (CURCA) to expand on it.
The highly competitive Student Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship—or “SSuRF” award—is a rare opportunity for students to work on a research or creative activity proposal alongside a dedicated faculty mentor, with generous funding available to supplement what most students would receive for a seasonal job. This selective cohort of students, alongside their faculty mentors, are given 10 weeks throughout the summer to explore their proposed projects, participate in professional development workshops, and offer their insights through Research in Progress meetings, assessments and various engaging presentations.
Gross worked with her faculty mentor, Professor
Princy Mennella, Associate Professor of Psychology,
to propose a study addressing the role of genetics,
anxiety, and impacts on circadian rhythms.
Circadian rhythms are defined as the physical, mental
and behavioral changes that follow a 24-hour cycle,
and these natural processes respond primarily to light
and dark while affecting most living things including
animals, plants, and microbes. Using the Drosophila
model—commonly known as the fruit fly—Gross is
looking at possible impacts that genes have on circadian rhythms in anxiety-like behavior of Drosophila.
“Once the project started to progress, I realized I enjoyed this type of research,” said Gross. “I enjoyed the hands-on approach that research allows you to have rather than only learning in the classroom.”
Guided by her faculty mentor Dr. Mennella, Gross has the rare opportunity to study the behavior of Drosophila with someone who is equally intrigued by the findings of this research. This is an authentic research experience where the outcomes aren’t known and findings may help to inform this field of research; adding to scientific knowledge about anxiety-like disorders, circadian rhythms, and the role genes may play.
“I have always been interested in circadian rhythms as a neurobiological phenomenon,” says Mennella. “However, my area of expertise is in hormones and brain development in rodents.”
But the common fruit fly is a “fantastic research model,”
says Dr. Mennella, “especially if we want to study the
genetics behind certain behaviors.”
“Flies missing genes can easily be purchased
and used for undergraduate research,” says Mennella,
as their reproductive rates are high, lifespan short,
andgenes are similar to humans, allowing us to
see behavioraleffects as a result of genetic
disruptions in progeny very quickly.
This research conducted by Gross and Mennella focuses on how specific genes controlling the circadian rhythm of these fruit flies—such as time, per, and clock—contribute to anxiety-like behavior. Stemming from an existing project, much of Gross’s research this summer will come from analyzing videos and learning more about the molecular biology behind the makeup of this species.
“During the Fall 2022 semester, I took a psychology course called Behavioral Neuroscience with Dr. Mennella and it was my first time being exposed to material of that nature. The course continued to surprise me throughout the semester, and it was the first time I felt myself become genuinely interested in the material I was learning and excited to find out more,” said Gross.
According to Gross’s abstract presented as material in her SSuRF application, circadian rhythms control many cyclic processes in the body. Altering any environmental cues that are responsible for regulating circadian rhythms can cause asynchronicity-regulating in your internal biological clock. Only a small collection of neurons in the brains of fruit flies is responsible for regulating their circadian rhythms. Many circadian synchronicity-regulating pathways overlap with pathways that control anxiety-like behaviors, which can be measured in fruit flies by observing their “wall following”, or WAFO, behavior. Her studies this summer aim to determine how specific genes controlling these circadian rhythms contribute to anxiety-like behavior in fruit flies. To do so, 3 mutant fly strains will be exposed to 12:12 light/dark condition for one week, and their WAFO behavior will be recorded for 10 minutes. Each recording will be scored and analyzed—which will constitute for much of Gross’s labor this summer—to determine how much time each mutant fly spends in the WAFO zone, representing anxiety-like behavior.
This anxiety-like behavior represented in fruit flies, Gross argues, could be critical to understanding some elements of human behavior to some degree.
“Anxiety-like behavior among our population has been increasing and a potential reason for this could be an alteration in circadian rhythm caused by prolonged light exposure to electronic devices,” she explained. “A goal of this study is to solidify the relationship between circadian rhythms and anxiety-like behavior to try and determine if electronic devices could be contributing to this spike in anxiety within the human population.”
Continuing the research on Drosophila that Gross and Mennella established throughout the Spring 2023 semester will allow for subsequent research to be conducted in the Fall 2023 semester: an opportunity invaluable to any student looking to establish a research project of longevity as an undergraduate.
“Finding students who are interested in doing research over the summer is tough as most students want to be home and already have jobs,” explained Dr. Mennella. “But working with students one-on-one during the summer is so different as it is way more relaxed and allows me as a mentor to really focus my attention on the student’s research and engagement in the project.”
In terms of recommending SSuRF, Dr. Mennella says faculty should welcome the opportunity if they can.
“I would highly recommend the program for anyone who has an interested student. It’s really rewarding.”
In addition to the duo’s anticipated research which is expected to be completed by the end of the SSuRF 2023 program, CURCA offers many benefits. “It’s an opportunity for students to engage in authentic research on a meaningful level. They work with their faculty mentors to guide the direction of the project, to interpret findings, and to contribute to knowledge in their field of research” says Dr. Lamis Jarvinen, CURCA Director. “What students don’t realize when they begin SSuRF is how transformed beyond the actual project, they gain valuable and highly sought after transferable skills, especially in regards to communicating technical information to varied audiences. More importantly they develop a sense of self confidence as they become the “experts” in their field.”
Gross is already learning incomparable skills—beginning with the application process— as she quickly learned how extensive and overwhelming programs like this can seem on your own, and how time management is critical.
“I started the application process once I found out I would be able to work remotely. Unfortunately, that meant I had slightly less time to work on my application,” she expressed. “However, Dr. Mennella was more than willing to guide me through the process and answer any questions I had which helped ease my anxiety while applying.”
Once she recognized her research potential in her first independent study in the Spring of 2023, she became more willing to expand on the research and her confidence began to soar. Throughout the SSuRF program, Gross will continue to participate in a variety of professional development workshops and Research in Progress meetings to help her further her understanding of scholarship and academic research at the university level.
“One last thing I will share is not to be afraid to ask questions,” she says. “If there is one thing I’ve learned so far in my short time doing research it is that nobody knows the answer to everything.”
With an overall goal to gain more research experience and also become more comfortable with public speaking and presenting her project, Gross will wrap up her summer research with a video analyzing her work, and also a presentation at the Fall 2023 CURCA Celebration on Friday December 8th, 2023 from 1-4pm in the Dower Center at Westfield State University.