Manager, Research Computing Support
Where and when was your research/creative experience as an undergraduate?
I was attending Bradley University in 1975. I was a psychology major at the time and was offered a job in a lab that studied substance abuse. I had accidentally taken a 5000 level class on motivation and emotion as a freshman. The professor, Larry Reid, made the class really exciting but without the background my fellow students had, it about killed me! I managed to get an A and the professor offered me a job in the Institute.
What did you do?
The research involved studying how addictive substances affected different parts of the brain. I would surgically implant a very fine electrode into a part of a rat’s brain that is associated with the sensation of pleasure (the lateral hypothalamus). We knew that electrical stimulation of the brain was extremely pleasurable and we suspected that various addictive drugs locked onto that location. If we could prove that, we could then try to develop drugs that affected that part of the brain in such a way as to block the addiction itself.
To test this, I surgically implanted the electrodes. Half got doses of morphine and half did not. Before the morphine, the rats all loved the electrical stimulation and, if we let them, would press a bar to receive stimulation until they dropped from exhaustion (we didn’t give them that much time of course). The rats on morphine tended to care much less about the electrical stimulation, indicating that as we suspected, that brain area was related to addiction.
How did your mentor help you?
Professor Reid taught me a tremendous amount of brain anatomy and physiology. My grad student mentor taught me how to perform the surgery, how to administer various types of injections, how to put the rats through the various experimental conditions, and how to record the data.
What is your favorite memory from that time?
I loved the feeling of excitement in the lab. Everyone felt we were moving science forward and the goal of eventually freeing people of addiction would help many people. People were in the lab at all hours working on various research tasks.
How did your experience benefit you?
It helped instill in me a love of the research process. I ended up working as a statistician, helping researchers plan their research studies and analyze the results. Although I don’t work in a lab, I still love visiting them as often as possible.
How does that experience impact your student engagement today?
I work in the Research Computing Support group in the Office of Information Technology. Having experienced the thrill of getting to do research as an undergraduate, I want to make sure UT undergrads know that our group is available to help them with their projects. We help students and faculty solve problems using computing, math, statistics, geographic maps, and information systems as well as text and image analysis. We can help you on your own laptop or on our Newton super computer.
What advice would you offer to students today who seek a similar experience?
Working on a research project is a golden opportunity to see how science moves mankind forward one step at a time. Whatever you help discover will be added to our collective knowledge forever! How many people get the chance to actually change the world?
Why should students seek such an experience?
It will deepen your understanding of science and how science improves all our lives.
What interesting fact about yourself might surprise your students?
I trained a rat to play basketball! No kidding. He would grab a marble, stand up on his hind legs and stuff it through a hoop. When you understand how to teach animals in small steps, it’s actually much easier than you might think. Rats will automatically look at a new object like a marble. So you reward him with a food pellet. He quickly figures out that the marble means food. Next, he has to move the marble in any way to get food. Then he has to move it toward the hoop to get food. With the hoop initially on the ground, he had to move the marble into the hoop. Each “successive approximation” to the goal was rewarded. Finally, I started moving the hoop up in the air & he figured out quickly what to do!
At a science museum I saw two rats playing each other, even wearing tiny rat jerseys. I compared notes with the trainer, and he had a much quicker approach: raise the floor. That positioned the ball right next to a hole in the floor containing the hoop. All the rat had to do was bump it & it went in. Then they lowered the floor. Once you start learning science, there’s no telling what you’ll learn next!
Office of Undergraduate Research
1534 White Ave.
Knoxville, TN 37996-1529
Phone: (865) 974-1475