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Marquis Scholars Sarah Ballard ’03 of Hummelstown, Pa. and Cliff Michaels ’02 of Nazareth, Pa. are working with Wendy Hill, professor and chair of neuroscience, on a series of experiments for their EXCEL work this summer.

“Cliff is setting up our high-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) unit that is used to assess the levels of different neurochemicals, such as serotonin, in brain tissue,” says Hill. “We are using this technique to analyze levels of serotonin in the hypothalamus of domestic chicks, which have been exposed to different light regimes during embryonic development. We are hoping to describe the neurochemical profiles of these animals.”

The light regimes — 12 hours of light and 12 hours of darkness, or 24 hours of constant light — result in some chicks hatching with circadian rhythms and other chicks hatching without them.

Michaels has found the research challenging and is pleased with the working relationship he has with Hill.

“Dr. Hill treats me very much like an equal rather than a student,” says Michaels, who is majoring in behavioral neuroscience. “She and I are working our way through a new procedure that neither of us are familiar with, and so we spent a great deal of time initially problem solving and refining the procedure.”

Says Hill, “HPLC is a very labor intensive and temperamental process. Cliff has been great at developing the protocols for the HPLC and trouble-shooting when things go wrong. He has become a real expert in this unique behavioral neuroscience technique. His help has been crucial in enabling me to establish a neurochemical assay technique.”

With plans to pursue a graduate degree in neuroscience, Michaels believes the EXCEL experience will be an asset in future academic work.

“EXCEL blurs the line between the traditional professor-student relationship, allowing both to challenge each other and learn from each other,” he says. “At a large institution, a graduate student would fill a position like mine. Here I get to participate in research as an undergraduate.”

He adds, “I am really interested in neurochemistry and this project has given me an opportunity to research this area. Doing hands-on research one-on-one with a professor will provide me with greater experience in the field. After graduate school, I would like to spend time doing lab research, so the techniques and training I am gaining here will greatly benefit me.”

Sarah Ballard, also a behavioral neuroscience major, is assisting Hill by conducting research on the role of testosterone in the mating behavior of male zebra finches.

“Zebra finches typically mate monogamously and live in large colonies, where pairs build nests close to other pairs,” says Hill. “We are hoping to determine how testosterone influences the aggression and courtship behavior of this colonial bird. We also are examining whether birds with testosterone are more likely to attract more than one female as mate, something that has been shown in other songbirds.”

Hill and Ballard conducted surgeries on 14 males, implanting half with a silastic tube filled with testosterone and a control group with a tube containing cholesterol. The next day the birds were released into the aviary with 14 females.

Says Ballard, “The surgeries were challenging, but the birds made it through. Since then I’ve been observing them for four hours a day, taking notes on their behavior. The males have been courting away. The birds really have distinct personalities.”

Describing the aviary activities as quite a “soap opera,” Hill and Ballard hope to reach some conclusions on the influence of the hormones on the birds’ behavior.

“Because Sarah is blind to which birds are in the testosterone group and which are in the control group, we do not yet know if there are any group differences,” says Hill.

She adds, “Sarah is a great observer of animals. She spots nuances and detects patterns of behaviors that others would miss. She has really made many important contributions to this project.”

For her part, Ballard credits Hill as a main inspiration for choosing Lafayette.

“I met Professor Hill through a former employer and was so impressed. I really wanted to come to Lafayette and work in her lab. I really appreciate the way she integrates the neural and behavioral parts of the project,” she says.

The department and major have inspired Ballard to consider this field as a future career.

“I’ve met such great professors at Lafayette. I’m glad interest is building in this major. I’ve had nothing but positive experiences in this department,” she says.

Michaels echoes Ballard’s enthusiasm.

“What makes Lafayette special is that it does not only excel in one area,” he says. “Lafayette may not be the best at one thing, but it does a lot of things and it does them all very well. Lafayette is a good combination of all things undergraduate schools should be. Strong academics, good community, good research, good athletics, and a good social atmosphere all combine to make Lafayette very appealing.”

Ballard is a member of the Psi Chi psychology honor society, competes on the fencing team, and is a member of QUEST (Questioning Established Sexual Taboos). She will be a lab assistant next semester.

Cliff Michaels is a member of the Psi Chi psychology honor society, a Teaching Assistant for biology, and a student representative of the Faculty Committee on Academic Progress. He is also a member of Kappa Delta Rho fraternity, vice president of the Student Alumni Association, president of CORRE, a member of Real Men of Lafayette, a member of the Experience Lafayette committee, and chair of the senior class fund drive.

Categorized in: Academic News