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Marquis Scholar Jill Krapf ’03 (Downingtown, Pa.) is exploring how baby chicks respond when they are afraid in order to understand the neurochemicals involved in anxiety- and fear-inducing situations.

Krapf, a behavioral neuroscience major, is undertaking the year-long project in pursuit of departmental honors under the guidance of Wendy Hill, Rappolt Professor and chair of neuroscience.

In her study, Krapf placed chicks in a simulated “open field,” which served as exposure to general anxiety. Then she introduced the chicks to a distinct fear condition in the form of a mounted falcon. Before placement in the open field, the chicks were injected with one of four things: epinephrine, the benzodiazepine GABA-agonist chlordiazepoxide, the GABA-antagonist picrotoxin, or saline.

Epinephrine, also known as adrenaline, occurs naturally in the body and is released in emergency, “fight-or-flight” situations. Chlordiazepoxide, commonly known as librium, is used as an anti-anxiety drug that works by interacting with and increasing GABA, a neurotransmitter that plays a role in influencing anxiety, among other things. In contrast, picrotoxin dcreases GABA, which might make one more anxious. Finally, the control group of chicks were injected with saline, which has no effect on their neurochemical pathways but kept the study consistent in that all chicks experienced an injection. Krapf then measured their levels of fear.

Higher levels of fear were indicated when the chick was slower to cry out, cried out less often, and exhibited less movement, including taking a longer time to cross a designated line on the floor grid of the open field and crossing fewer lines. Krapf videotaped the chicks so she could measure how long it takes them to cry out and how many times they do.

The aim of Krapf’s project is to examine the neurochemical pathways that mediate distress vocalization (crying out) and moving behaviors in response to the two different situations (diffuse anxiety-inducing and distinct fear-causing). The experiment, which has never been done exactly this way, could serve as a model for testing new types of anti-anxiety drugs.

“A good anti-anxiety drug would only affect the anxiety, and wouldn’t do anything to fear responses,” explains Hill. “You want the drug to be specifically targeted so the natural, necessary fear response still occurs.”

Krapf says she chose to do the project so she could apply what she learned in class first-hand. “I consider myself a very motivated person, so working independently on a topic of my choice and conducting my own research was extremely appealing to me. Completing my thesis has been such a positive learning experience — I feel I have gained a more realistic view of research and a true appreciation for scientists who have been published in academic journals.”

“Jill is clearly on her way to being an independent scholar,” says Hill. “This is her project — she put it together. She’s learned to have a greater appreciation for research in behavioral neuroscience. She has also become much more skilled in understanding research design and method, and is starting to see the big picture.”

“She’s got a keen intellect, is very hardworking, very responsible, and she writes like a dream,” continues Hill. “She’s just an outstanding student.” Krapf had to synthesize the different pieces of literature as well as create the procedure she used, she adds.

“I chose to work with Dr. Hill because she is such an intelligent, caring, and enthusiastic professor,” says Krapf. “I worked as her psychology lab assistant for three semesters, which I enjoyed very much. She has been very supportive of my thesis as well as the other students who are conducting research in her lab.”

Hill is the recipient of more than a dozen grants, including a 2003 James McKeen Cattell Fund Fellowship for a major new research project that could provide insight into how physiological systems give rise to adaptive behaviors (see related story). She was named Pennsylvania’s Professor of the Year in 1999 by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching for her extraordinary dedication to teaching and exceptional impact on and involvement with undergraduate students

Krapf feels that Lafayette is an excellent academic environment for projects such as her thesis. “Because Lafayette does not have graduate students, as an undergraduate I am given the opportunity to conduct research for an honors thesis and be a teaching assistant, endeavors that may not be an option at larger institutions.” Krapf also notes that she is fortunate to be able to conduct her research in a state-of-the-art building, the newly built Oechsle Hall.

Krapf has served summer-long internships at Burdette Tomlin Memorial Hospital in Cape May Courthouse, N.J., and Duke University Medical Center under Dr. David Albala ’78, professor of urology and head of minimally invasive surgery (see related story). She has shadowed alumni in externships at the Arrhythmia Clinic of Washington Hospital Center in Washington, D.C. and at University Community Hospital in Tampa, Fla.

Named to the Dean’s List every semester, Krapf is a member of Psi Chi, the national honor society for psychology, and Lafayette Society for Neuroscience, for which she has served as secretary. She is a peer tutor for biology and psychology, and a tutor at Northampton County Prison through Lafayette’s Landis Community Outreach Center. She has been vice president of mental advancement for Pi Beta Phi sorority. She also took a three-week Lafayette January interim session course in Kenya and Tanzania.

Categorized in: Academic News