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Learning goals/objectives for each of my research students:
Understanding of the research process
Understanding how scientists work on problems
Understanding how knowledge is constructed
Reading primary literature with a critical eye
Cultivating tolerance for obstacles and ability to work through challenges
Learning to work independently and as a team
Interpreting data/results (ours and other labs’)
Developing skills in science communication (oral, written)
Cultivating a collaborative, positive, and open-minded spirit and support of fellow labmates
Inspiring an interest in the larger scientific community
Clarifying potential career interests/paths
Broadly, neuroscience is the study of the nervous system, including (but not limited to) the brain. It is extremely interdisciplinary and contains many subfields that range from computer modeling to biochemistry to cognitive sciences. While my doctoral degree is in Integrative Neuroscience, my expertise is in a subfield called behavioral neuroscience.
Behavioral neuroscience is the application of the principles of biology to the study of behavior. My scholarship focuses on understanding how drugs of abuse alter brain circuits involved in reward, motivation and learning.
My specific research interests explore how (a) drugs alter normal learning, memory, and motivational processes, (b) sex differences and hormones alter drug seeking and (c) differences between individuals impact their vulnerability to addiction. For these projects, which constitute the primary arm of my research program, I use mice as a model system.
A secondary arm of my research program explores perceptions and attitudes related to drugs/alcohol in our local community, in partnership with our anti-drug coalition.
A third arm involves the scholarship of teaching and learning, and includes the development, implementation, assessment, and publication of teaching materials and approaches that promote active, inquiry-based learning.
Opioid drugs are one of the most effective and widely prescribed classes of painkillers, but, over the past two decades, opioid abuse and addiction has escalated tremendously (Compton & Volkow 2006; Johnston et al., 2009; Fischer et al., 2013; Dart et al., 2015; Sanchez et al., 2016). In humans and in animal models, females are uniquely sensitive to drugs of abuse, particularly when estrogen is high (Cicero et al., 2003; Carroll et al., 2004; Dahan et al., 2008; Calipari et al., 2017); for instance, females prefer smaller (introductory) doses and transition to maladaptive patterns of drug abuse/dependence more rapidly than males. Compared to males, however, much less is known about female neurobiology and pharmacology (see Zucker & Beery, 2010). The behavioral and neural factors that contribute to females’ vulnerability (or resilience) to opioid abuse remain unclear. My research program approaches these questions experimentally, using laboratory mice.
Females’ levels of gonadal hormones (e.g., estrogen, progesterone) change regularly across their reproductive and life cycles, and emerging evidence suggests that estrogen and opioid receptors may interact to modulate females’ response to opioid drugs (e.g., Roth et al., 2002; Lee & Ho, 2013). While the impact of gonadal hormones on molecular and behavioral responses to psychostimulants (e.g., cocaine; Becker & Hu 2008; Calipari et al., 2017) has been studied, much less research has focused on a distinct class of opioid drugs, specifically oxycodone. The following projects identify behavioral and motivational changes that occur across the addiction-like cycle in rodents, with respect to sex and across various reproductive stages in females (e.g., estrus, postpartum).
Opioid use in southern Appalachia
Opioid misuse, dependence and overdose in rural Appalachia has been problematic long before the national “opioid epidemic” that is widely publicized today, and the number of active opioid prescriptions in Tennessee remains one of the highest in the country. While these drugs are effective and commonly prescribed painkillers, they can also induce rapid neurobiological tolerance, are easily accessed, and are perceived as safe. Further, abuse of tobacco, alcohol and illicit drugs is significantly higher (26%) amongst youth living in rural areas than those living in urban areas (Havens, Young, & Havens, 2008). In other areas of rural Appalachia (e.g., West Virginia), there are 35.5 overdoses per 100,000 inhabitants, compared to the national average of 14.7 (Moddy & Satterwhite, 2017). Despite the increased risk to abuse substances among those in rural areas, it remains unclear how rural youth perceive and consider substance use differently. While evidence-based drug education can protect children and adolescents from drug use (Ford, 2009; Botvin, 2015), the relevance and efficacy of these programs depends, in part, on understanding local adolescents’ perspectives and attitudes toward alcohol/drugs, sources of alcohol/drugs, and factors influencing alcohol/drug use (e.g., perceived risk, ease of access, familial modeling).
How do southern Appalachian community members and organizations think and make decisions about opioid drugs in medical and non-medical contexts, with respect to their prevailing perceptions, assumptions and worldviews? This project was developed in collaboration with my community partner, Ms. Chasity Melton of the Grundy Safe Communities Coalition (GSCC). The GSCC is a non-profit, grant-funded anti-drug coalition in Tracy City, TN, that is focused on drug education and prevention. Together, we developed and conducted two survey-based studies (run in 2019 and 2020) on the prevalence, sources, and perceptions/attitudes related to alcohol/drug use in local adolescents that will be used to inform GSCC goals and programming.
Undergraduate neuroscience education has a vibrant community dedicated to the scholarship of teaching and learning (SoTL) in neuroscience. Effective SoTL involves inquiry focused on student learning, an attention to context, use of sound methodology, collaboration with students, and public dissemination of information (Felten 2013). Over the past years, I’ve expanded my research program to include the development, implementation, and assessment of teaching materials and approaches that promote active, inquiry-based learning. This work has helped me to become a more reflective and evidence-based teacher and enabled me to learn about approaches and factors that enhance or impede students’ learning.
Projects involving students
I work with undergraduate students in my laboratory, and see this work as a great opportunity to think collaboratively, critically, and carefully about research in my field. Research can be a labor of love – it requires creativity, deep thinking, perseverance, and an ability to embrace a path that is not always straightforward – this is the nature of scientific discovery. It is also a commitment of time and energy, and the more that you invest in the process, the more valuable your experience and your outcomes (papers, conference presentations, etc). I will work to ensure that you are engaging with a topic/project that interests you and guide you in your research project; I ask for commitment, earnest work, positivity, and open dialogue in return. If you're interested in learning more, please contact me at my Sewanee email.
A few examples of recent student work/presentations can be found below.
Exploring factors contributing to the opioid crisis
Hayden (C'19) and Raleigh (C'20) explored factors contributing to the opioid crisis in a series of independent studies, and recently published their work in the online journal IMPULSE.
How can we identify brain circuits activated by drugs?
Sam (C'22) learned and performed a series of immunohistochemical studies to identify cFos protein expressed in mouse brain, during his 10-week SURF experience in 2021.
Does drug preference differ in female and male mice?
Anna and Andrew presented a poster of their work during the 2019-2020 academic year at Scholarship Sewanee, and as a talk at the 2020 Neuroscience Undergraduate Virtual Research Symposium (NURVS)
How can place preference data be represented?
Kate & Andrew evaluated how to most accurately represent place preference data, and presented this work at Scholarship Sewanee and the 2019 Middle TN Psychological Association meeting.