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Marquis Scholar Lori Astheimer ’05 (Furlong, Pa.) tracked the fear index of rats to determine the relationship between fear and learning this summer, building on independent research she conducted in the spring.

The research has been submitted for publication to a scientific journal and Astheimer will present her findings at the annual Society for Neuroscience meeting in San Diego later this month.

During the first part of the project, Astheimer, a neuroscience major, learned how to perform electrode implant surgery with the help of Gabrielle Britton, assistant professor of psychology. The surgery, which was used in the second phase of the project, allowed Astheimer to conduct eye blink conditioning in rats. She administered a mild shock to the rats’ eyelids and recorded how many times the animal blinked in response.

“By measuring how often the animal freezes during these training sessions as an index of fear, we can look for relationships between the animal’s fear and its ability to learn,” she explains.

Astheimer worked with Britton through Lafayette’s distinctive EXCEL Scholars program, in which students conduct research with faculty while earning a stipend. The program has helped to make Lafayette a national leader in undergraduate research. Many of the more than 160 students who participate each year share their work through articles in academic journals and/or conference presentations.

Astheimer was in charge of conducting the surgery on the rats. She says that the first part of the summer was spent “refining” her surgical skills, which was a tedious task. After the surgeries, Astheimer trained the rats to respond to the shock signal. These experiments used various computer programs and electrophysiological setups, she explains.

The researchers found that animals that received a tone (conditioned stimulus) followed by a shock (unconditioned stimulus) exhibited high levels of fear, but fear decreased as condition responses increased.

“The results provide support for currently held two-process models of conditioning, but they also suggest that decreases in fear can occur without learning the adaptive motor response, which is interesting,” Astheimer says. “In short, these findings provide information about how multiple memory systems interact to produce learning in a simple system.”

Working in the laboratory with Britton was fun, Astheimer notes.

“Even though Dr. Britton takes her research very seriously, there was never too much pressure in the lab,” she adds. “Her sense of humor and outspoken nature [contributed to the atmosphere] in the lab.”

The pair worked closely over the summer, and Astheimer says she has come to know her professor personally as well as professionally.

“In the lab, it doesn’t seem as much like a teacher-student relationship as it does in the classroom; it seems like we’re more of a team.”

Astheimer is a member of the Society for Neuroscience and performs with a chamber music group and the orchestra. She also plays on the club field hockey team.

Chosen from among Lafayette’s most promising applicants, Marquis Scholars like Astheimer receive special financial aid and distinctive educational experiences and benefits, including a three-week, Lafayette-funded study-abroad course during January’s interim session between semesters. Marquis Scholars also participate in cultural activities in major cities and on campus, and mentoring programs with Lafayette faculty.

As a national leader in undergraduate research, Lafayette sends one of the largest contingents to the National Conference on Undergraduate Research each year. Forty-two students were accepted to present their work at the last annual conference in April.

Categorized in: Academic News