Lawrence Students get firsthand look at research at Waisman through summer internship program

Lawrence Students get firsthand look at research at Waisman through Summer Internship Program

By Charlene N. Rivera-Bonet and Emily Leclerc, Waisman Science Writers

Since 2016, the Waisman Center has partnered with Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin to provide summer research internships for undergraduate Lawrence students in the labs of Waisman researchers. The internship program was established through the leadership and philanthropy of the late John Mielke, MD, a former member of the Waisman Board of Visitors and Appleton native, and his wife Sally.

Between June and August 2022 five Lawrence students – Aasma Haider, Georgia Chau, Cat Chu, Courtney Wilmington, and Callie Greene – conducted a broad range of research related to intellectual and developmental disabilities in the labs of Waisman Principal Investigators Leann DaWalt, Robert Pearce, Xinyu Zhao, Aviad Hai, and Doug Dean. The program is coordinated by Leann DaWalt, PhD, the director of the University Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities at the Waisman Center.

“The Lawrence summer research program is mutually beneficial to the students and the Waisman Center. Through the internship program, the students are able to take what they have been learning through their coursework and apply it in a lab setting,” DaWalt says. “Training the next generation of researchers and clinicians is a key Waisman initiative. The program supports deeper learning and offers undergraduates the opportunity to explore what it might be like if they decide to pursue graduate training in research.”

Learning How Research Can Impact Real World Families

Aasma Haider is a returning student to the Waisman Center, as she participated in the summer research experience last year. A senior majoring in neuroscience and psychology, Haider spent her time in DaWalt’s Lifespan Family Research Lab. While in the lab, Haider helped write the introduction to a paper on the lab’s 22-year longitudinal study and worked on data entry from multiple studies on families who have a member with autism or fragile X syndrome (FXS).

While the work was engaging and informative, Haider found even more value in the perspective the work gave her. “This experience has made me realize how valuable human data is. Although I cannot expect to conduct research with human subjects wherever I go, I now better understand the goal of research and how we can benefit individuals and their families’ long term,” Haider says. “This lab has shown me how science can directly help others and I hope my career will follow that path.”

DaWalt was excited to take on another Lawrence student as she has found them to be dedicated, quick learners and eager to contribute to the lab. Haider was no exception. “Aasma was a truly wonderful addition to our lab this summer. She is smart, diligent, and enthusiastic,” DaWalt says.  “She asked great questions and worked carefully and thoughtfully to carryout her project in the lab.”

The Connection Between Anesthesia and Memory

Cat Chu, a junior in neuroscience and psychology, had “quite an eye-opening experience” working in the lab of Robert Pearce, MD, PhD, professor and chair of anesthesiology. “I broadened my understanding of a very specific neuroscience subject in a field – anesthesiology – that I didn’t expect to get to explore through the lens of neuroscience,” Chu says.

In Pearce’s lab, Chu looked at how memories are made and controlled by anesthetics that target GABA receptors in the brain using calcium imaging techniques. “A highlight of my experience was observing calcium signals from cells changing as the [mice] explored in real time,” Chu says. “It’s fascinating to see how technological advances have aided scientific research in discovering elements of life.”

This experience was beneficial for both Chu and Pearce. “Cat has been very helpful to our research over these past couple of months,” Pearce says. “She very quickly learned how to carry out experiments using a miniaturized endoscope to record calcium signals from the hippocampus of freely exploring mice, and she collected a lot of very useful data.”

A New Perspective on Psychology

For Callie Green, applying to do research at the Waisman Center was an easy choice. “One of my main interests has been neurodevelopmental disorders, so when I heard about the work the Waisman Center does, I couldn’t help but apply,” Green says. The fourth-year psychology major and music minor had been part of research at her home institution but was curious about what it was like to work at a larger research facility.

Throughout the summer, Green worked in the lab of Xinyu Zhao, PhD, professor of neuroscience. Zhao’s work revolves around utilizing stem cells to study the molecular mechanisms in the brain behind developmental disorders like fragile X syndrome and autism. Even though she came into the lab with little experience in neuroscience research, she finished the summer with a new set of research techniques such as learning how to use the polymerase chain reaction method that rapidly replicates specific DNA samples and genotyping. Her experiences in the Zhao lab also gave her a new perspective on research. “Understanding a disorder from multiple scientific perspectives is essential to understanding the whole of a disorder instead of just a snapshot,” Green says. “As I continue my psychology degree and future career, I plan to keep that idea with me.” Green plans to pursue a PhD in clinical psychology.

For Zhao, who hosts approximately 15 undergraduates throughout a year, including summer students like Green, supporting undergraduate student research has always been a priority. “I always try to accommodate as many undergrads as possible to have them work in the lab, especially those students who are really passionate about the research,” Zhao says. “We were delighted to have Callie this summer.”

A Coding Success Leads to Brilliant Visuals

Cortney Wilmington, a senior pursuing a dual degree program in neuroscience and music education with a biology minor, was seeking to add depth to her understanding of the field of neuroscience. In the lab of Aviad Hai, PhD, an assistant professor of biomedical engineering, Wilmington got an up close and personal look at the tools that are used to study brain function and how those tools are developed and improved.

“A highlight for me was when I fixed all the bugs in my heatmap code for network spike participation and was able to produce a wonderful and descriptive visualization,” Wilmington says. Wilmington worked on a project that characterized calcium release in neurons treated with a seizure-enhancing drug. In addition to working on her research project, she was thrilled at the opportunity to attend faculty and guest lectures.

This was Hai’s second summer hosting a student from Lawrence. “Both students are hardworking, inquisitive, and contributed to the lab both scientifically and socially,” Hai says.

Helping to Create a More Child-Friendly MRI Experience

Georgia Chau is a senior at Lawrence University pursuing a double major in neuroscience and clarinet performance. As she is planning to work in neuroscience research after graduation before attending graduate school to earn her PhD, Chau thought a summer of research at the Waisman Center would be a brilliant opportunity. “I chose to participate in this research experience because I want to go into neuroscience research after Lawrence and the Developing Brain Imaging Lab’s studies of young children and babies was exciting as I had never worked with brain imaging data or this population,” Chau says.

Chau spent the summer in the lab of Doug Dean III, PhD, assistant professor of pediatrics and medical physics, trying to determine a more sensory-and child-friendly way to collect brain imaging data. MRI, magnetic resonance imaging, can be tough for young children as the machine is loud and it requires the child to lie completely still for up to two hours to receive accurate data. “A newer technique, fNIRS (functional near-infrared spectroscopy), allows research participants to move more freely, is much quieter, and takes less time to acquire data. I used MRI, fNIRS, and behavioral assessment data to analyze the relationship between fNIRS and MRI accuracy,” Chau says.

Chau feels this experience helped her further realize her interest in developmental neuroscience and gave her valuable skills in brain imaging and data analysis. “I’ve been impressed with how she has excelled at quickly learning how to analyze and work with these complex data,” Dean says. “She had to learn how to execute several of our processing workflows and pipelines as well as how to troubleshoot any errors that came about. She jumped right into the work and did a fantastic job.”

Support for the internship program is provided through Lawrence University and John and Sally Mielke.

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