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Neuroscience major Lori Cooper ’07 (Brackney, Pa.) always knew that turtles were slow-moving animals, but a research project is teaching her that their delayed actions don’t end with their limbs.

Cooper has learned that a turtle’s pupils take much longer to dilate than a human’s when exposed to light, and she’s conducting experiments aimed at discovering why. It takes about five minutes for human pupils to enlarge to equilibrium. A turtle’s response time is closer to 30 minutes.

Cooper, a member of the track and field team, is completing her research on turtle pupils as an EXCEL Scholar under the guidance of James Dearworth, assistant professor of biology.

In Lafayette’s distinctive EXCEL Scholars program, 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.

“The goal this summer is to try and identify the neural controls of the pupil in the turtle,” Dearworth says. “In humans, when we go outside, you can actually feel your iris muscles outside the pupil respond to bright light, and while the turtle has the same sort of mechanism as humans, the pupil response is much slower and we’re not exactly sure why — it’s unclear what’s controlling the pupil response.”

Cooper’s main research responsibilities focus on dilating the turtles’ pupils with solutions known to cause dilation and measuring their response times at five- and ten- minute intervals over a three-hour period several times a week. This enables the researchers to learn how quickly the turtles’ optic nerves tell their brains to respond and the actual response times.

“My research interests lie in how the nervous system transforms information from the external environment, integrates it, and produces some motor response,” Dearworth adds. “This is a nice way of examining one of the processes that’s going on in the nervous system.”

Dearworth expects that Copper will present her research at a conference and that their findings will be published in a scientific journal.

If the researchers can identify why turtles’ eyes have such slow response times to light, they may lay the foundation for future research in human neural processes.

“The slow response of the turtles’ pupils and retina may be the result of a sub-type of ganglian cells, which are the cells that make up the optic nerve in humans, primates, and rats and are thought to be the cells involved in driving circadian rhythms,” Dearworth explains. “So it might be a sub-type of these cells that are driving their own circadian rhythms and slow response time.”

Circadian rhythms, often referred to as an internal body clock, control biological processes such as sleep, hormone production, and temperature.

“Even if a direct link isn’t found between humans and turtles, working with an unknown solution is part of what makes the project so interesting,” Cooper says.

“What I find most interesting is when we come up with an idea and the experiment to prove it, and the hypothesis of what should happen, and it actually works and will hopefully continue to come out that way,” she adds. “It’s rewarding in that aspect — to put in all the time and have something pan out.”

Working with unknowns also can be frustrating.

“For example, when one of our run-throughs didn’t work out, we realized either the turtle was too big or the dose was too small, so we had to adjust all of our measurements,” Cooper explains. “But dealing with the frustration is more or less just being able to think about what went wrong and how you can either work that into your experiment or come up with a way around it — it’s like a problem-solving technique.”

In addition to learning problem-solving skills, Cooper is gaining knowledge and skills that will benefit her when she applies to graduate school.

“Throughout this summer experience, Lori is becoming a more well-rounded student because she gets this close interaction with a faculty member, which is an advantage Lafayette students really have over other students and an opportunity I wish I had been given as a student,” Dearworth says. “Also, we went down to Alabama and spent two weeks at the college where I did my post-doctoral work. She got the opportunity to be at a graduate school and see what it would be like to be a graduate student, which is where her interests are right now.”

Cooper does not know precisely what area she would like to specialize in at graduate school, but her EXCEL work supports her desire to continue on as a researcher, both as an EXCEL Scholar at Lafayette and beyond.

“I’m already learning a lot of techniques that other students in my place probably haven’t been introduced to and I’m already getting experience doing experiments and coming up with ideas for myself,” she explains. “It’s different conducting experiments in a structured lab setting, such as a class, and doing them on your own. I feel that this experience gives me an advantage over everyone else who is competing for work in graduate school.”

As a first-year student, Cooper participated in Alternative School Break. She graduated from Montrose Area Junior/Senior High School.

As a national leader in undergraduate research, Lafayette sends one of the largest contingents to the National Conference on Undergraduate Research each year. Thirty-nine students were accepted to present their research at this year’s conference.

Categorized in: Academic News