|VOLUME 18||THE UNIVERSITY OF WISCONSIN-MILWAUKEE | GRADUATE SCHOOL||NUMBER 3|
What's On Your Mind?
Researchers Want To Know
When gazing across the room at an interesting stranger, a thought might come to mind: what is he/she thinking? Behavioral clues may reveal part of the answer; a smile, a raised eyebrow, or tightly crossed arms can signal a person's mood. But reading a person's "body language" may just as easily lead to the wrong conclusions. What if the smiling stranger is, in fact, acknowledging a friend standing nearby?
How much better it would be if you could peer directly into someone's brain to see what's going on! Armed with a blueprint of brain activity, you could accurately pinpoint what emotions and perceptions were being triggered at that precise moment. Then you could confidently make the next move - without worrying about misreading a person's mood and intentions.
Before this scenario gets too far-fetched, let's consider the research of Associate Professor Fred Helmstetter. A member of UWM's Psychology Department since 1990, Helmstetter leads an active research group that probes how the brain and nervous system are linked to such psychological phenomena as learning, memory, emotion and perception. Bit by bit, Helmstetter's group is discovering what parts of the brain control different functions in the body.
"Yes, we want to know specifics, but we're more interested in the general principles underlying specific phenomena," says Helmstetter, settling into a comforatble office chair. "We want to answer questions like, 'how does the brain change as a result of experience?'"
Helmstetter's research involves a small, close-knit group of students who work in the laboratory. Four of these are Ph.D. candidates, and the remaining two to ten students are undergraduates. Helmstetter deliberately limits the number of student who are part of the lab team, and he ensures that a certain graduate student-to-undergraduate ratio is maintained.
"I take a small-science approach," Helmstetter explains. This allows students more access to Helmstetter than would be possible in a larger lab. "I know what everyone is doing, and I'm directly involved in everyone's work," he says. Furthermore, the carefully maintained mix of graduate students and undergraduates allows them ample opportunity to learn from each other.
Helmstetter had been successful in attracting a significant amount of extramural support for his projects, primarily from federal government agencies such as the National Science Foundation, the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the National Institute on Mental Health. Helmstetter also has received funds from The Graduate School and the Whitehall Foundation, a private foundation.
Helmstetter is pleased at the laboratory's progress, and credits this success to a combination of factors: good students, good science and conservative expectations. His secret? "Set reasonable goals and take manageable steps along the way."
What separates these experiments from those conducted in the biology department is that Helmstetter is concerned with psychological as well as physiological changes in the body. One classic experiment involves dividing a box into two sections. One section is painted white, the other black. A rat is placed in one side of the box and given some food. This is repeated several times. Later, the rat is allowed to choose which side of the box to enter. A hungry rat will always select the side of the box that it associates with food; this serves as a simple model for memory function.
Helmstetter takes this behavioral study a step farther. "We want to know what changes in the rat's brain to allow it to remember where the food is," Helmstetter says. "We know that neurons will change patterns of connectivity and cells begin talking to cells they haven't talked to before." The only way to get this information is to dissect and study the rat's brain.
Some of Helmstetter's experimental designs are considerably more complex than the rat-in-the-box experiment described above. Another experiment begins with rats being placed into a specially constructed cage. The rats hear a tone, followed by a mild electric shock. This is repeated a number of times. Helmstetter and his research team have shown that the rats will eventually associate the tone with shock therapy, a process known as "aversive Pavlovian conditioning."
At the sound of the tone, the rats react fearfully. They display freezing behavior, their heart rate and blood pressure increases, and they show less sensitivity to pain (hypoalgesia). Such exposure to "fear-evoking stimuli" has allowed researchers to trace what portions of the brain are responsible for triggering anxiety and defense mechanisms.
Information gleaned from such experiments can be applied to a variety of clinical and scientific purposes. Helmstetter's work with memory function, for example, has direct application to research on Alzheimer's disease. Related ares of Helmstetter's research are yielding clues to the origin and nature of other diseases, such as anxiety disorders and chronic pain.
Helmstetter likens his laboratory environment to an "open-ended family." When he first came to UWM in 1990, Helmstetter says he was fortunate to find graduate students who took an immediate interest in his research focus. Helmstetter began the daunting task of training his first group of students in surgical and analytic techniques. The next step was to find equally motivated undergraduate students who could learn from this first group of research assistants. Again, Helmstetter was pleased to discover "a large number of highly motivated and intelligent students willing to become involved in research. Some of them now operate at a level comparable to graduate students, and this is really impressive."
He calls the group an "open-ended family" because the students eventually strike out on their own to discover new opportunities. "This opens the door for new students to join the lab," Helmstetter comments. "Such is the nature of science."
Helmstetter believes that doing research is an essential component of a student's education. "Undergraduates who've never been exposed to research tend to have a hard time relating to it," Helmstetter says. "I ask them, 'where do you think all the information in your textbook comes from?' Often it isn't until they see my name, or the names of other professors, mentioned in a textbook that they begin to make the connection between classroom curriculum and research."
Helmstetter is a popular teacher both inside and outside of the classroom. He believes classroom instruction is vital for giving students a basic foundation in the principles of science. "You need that context under your belt before you move on to generate new knowledge," he says. "Remember, we're training people not just to learn science, but to do science."
Helmstetter descripbes the ideal science student as a "highly motivated self-starter." Sheralee Tershner certainly fits that description. After earning a pair of master's degrees (in educational psychology and physiological psychology), she has spent the past several years at UWM. Tershner has been doing research since she was 17, working first at the primate laboratory ot UW-Madison and, later, at the Medical College of Wisconsin. She will receive her Ph.D. from UWM in May 1996.
"As a graduate student, you have to knowmore than just laboratory techniques," she says. "You must understand the implications of research." To her, that means "Knowing the right question" - the questions that will propel one's research to the next level of understanding.
To expand her knowledge and experience in the field of neuroscience, Tershner attends two or three professional conferences a year. Most of the expenses come out of her own pocket, but she sees it as a worthwhile investment in her future. "I think of it as a reward for all my hard work the rest of the year," she says with a laugh. Tershner has attended conferences in Los Angelos, Anaheim, Miami, Washington, D.C., and New Orleans.
During conference sessions, she often gets an opportunity to share her research with colleagues from throughout the world. "This is the best opportunity we have to receive feedback (about research)," she says. "It's like a giant brainstroming session."
She's also candid about the networking opportunities that arise when thousands of scientists come together. She hopes that this year's conferences will give her the necessary "exposure" to attract invitaions for post-doctoral positions. She's still undecided about whether her career goals will eventually lead to a job in academia or industry.
In Helmstetter's laboratory, Tershner works with undergraduates every day. She assigns them lab duties and supervises their activities. Tershner also teaches an introductory course on physiological psychology that incorporates her research projects. "When we get to the section on research methods, I start bringing 'props' from the lab to show the students what we're working with," she says.
The toughest part of Tershner's graduate school experience is publishing her research results. "I hate writing," she admits. More specifically, it's the endless rewrites that Tershner finds so challenging. Typically, several drafts of a paper are produced before Helmstetter approves its release to a scholarly publication for review. Then the publication's editor may request an additional rewrite before the article is finally published. Tershner has co-authored two papers since coming to UWM. Before she graduates, it's likely that she'll write four more.
Helmstetter tells his students that publishing is as important as doing the research itself. "The end product of scientific research is publication in a peer-reviewed journal," he saya bluntly. "For students to become researchers in their own right, they need to show evidence of their ability, to demonstrate what they're capable of." Helmstetter says that graduate students would have a difficult time finding a post-doctoral position without having published several articles based on their prior research.
"I wouldn't consider hiring anyone who hadn't done research and published it," he says. "That would be like a newspaper editor hiring a reporter who hadn't ever written anything."
Motivated students can look forward to a variety of career options after graduation. There's the option of continuing one's research at a university, seeking out lucrative industry jobs, or following a more independent path. Industry jobs exist primarily at pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies, and within government agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) and the National Institutes of Health. Some of the less traditional routes include market research, statistics, or book publishing.
"There are real rewards for a small number of smart, independent people who love to do science," Helmstetter remarks. "It's exciting to see some of these people come through our program, and then do well afterwards."