Throughout high school, I worked with horses and children with intellectual and developmental disabilities at a hippotherapy center, inducing a fascination with animal behavior and brain plasticity and driving me to pursue the Neuroscience major and research at UVA. As such, I joined the laboratory of Dr. Tracy Larson in the Department of Biology at UVA in Fall 2020. In Dr. Larson’s lab, my research focuses on adult neurogenesis in the songbird, Gamble’s white-crowned sparrow (Zonotrichia leucophrys gambelli). In Dr. Larson’s lab, we study the proximate and ultimate mechanisms that underlie adult neurogenesis in the song circuit and related singing behavior.
Recent research in the Larson Lab includes the effect on inflammation on natural reactive neurogenesis, which can be defined as the birth of new neurons in the adult brain following non-injury-induced cell death. In adult male Gambel’s white-crowned sparrows, the number of neurons in the high vocal center (HVC), which is responsible for the production of song, changes seasonally. As a result of the onset of breeding conditions, tens of thousands of new neurons are incorporated into the HVC; during the transition from breeding to non-breeding conditions, an equal number of neurons undergo cell death. Dr. Larson found that orally administering the anti-inflammatory drug minocycline in Gamble’s white-crowned sparrow prevented reactive neurogenesis following seasonal cell loss, while local inflammation increased cell proliferation in the adjacent ventricular zone, which supplies HVC with new neurons. These findings provide evidence that inflammation regulates neurogenesis, which is important for songbirds to maintain homeostasis in the HVC breeding and nonbreeding conditions (Larson et al, 2020).
Due to COVID-19, my research was necessarily performed remotely. To continue to push the research forward even though I was not able to be in the lab, I assisted a group of undergraduates in creating a database of all experimental animals used in Dr. Larson’s research program along with the data from a collaborator, Dr. Eliot Brenowitz, University of Washington. Specifically, I organized experimental information from bird life history (in the lab) and treatment and data, including singing behavior analyses and cell counts, in a database created by Dr. Larson using FileMakerPro. Dr. Larson also organized a weekly “lab meeting” in which we intensely studied adult neurogenesis across species using the textbook “Adult Neurogenesis,” edited by Richard Sever.
Once undergraduate researchers can return to physically work in the lab, my work in Dr. Larson’s lab will primarily focus on characterization of adult-born neurons and neural morphology; the shape of a neuron often directs the neuron’s function by establishing its synaptic partnerships. Until then, in the upcoming semester, Dr. Larson’s “lab meeting” will focus on common techniques for behavioral analyses (for example, creating ethograms, which are lists of species-specific behaviors describing the elements and function of each behavior) to introduce us to animal behavior observation. Because we will likely not be in the lab, we will focus our behavioral observations on a pet or local wildlife.
Although unable to be in the lab, performing remote research has provided me with a plethora of important skills. Inputting data into the database has not only helped me to learn the terminology and techniques commonly used in the songbird field, but has also inspired me to identify new questions that could be addressed using meta analyses across traditionally siloed research experiments. In addition, Dr. Larson encouraged us to be independent in our data entry and readings prior to discussing as a group, which was daunting at first, but ultimately gave me confidence and an ability to push through the discomfort of knowing very little in a new field.
Tips for undergrads on getting involved in research
I’ve been asked by several of my peers looking to get involved in research about how I got involved. Last August, before coming on Grounds, I looked on the Neuroscience, Psychology, and Biology major websites to find faculty doing research I found interesting. I then sent emails out to several UVA professors, including information about myself, why I was interested in their research specifically, and asking if they had spots open for undergraduates to work as research assistants in their lab. I also attached my resume and transcript in case they were interested. Not all professors replied; I sent a follow-up email to them in case my email was just overlooked, and if they still didn’t reply, I assumed they weren’t interested. Almost all professors replied that they didn’t need any RAs at this time, or that undergraduates weren’t allowed in the lab due to COVID. Dr. Larson invited me to her first lab meeting, and I began doing remote research alongside her other undergraduate RAs.
Once involved in a research lab, my biggest piece of advice is to not be deterred or discouraged if you’re confused about the topic you’re researching. When reading the articles in the textbook “Adult Neurogenesis,” I would at times feel completely lost. I felt like I knew nothing, and that I was ill-suited to be doing this research. But I had to remind myself that I am an undergraduate student, and these articles are written by researchers who have been studying and researching in their field for a considerable amount of time. Furthermore their intended audience consists of individuals with a deep understanding of the topic. Thus it’s okay for me to feel lost; it only gives me more room to learn.
Larson, T.A., Tokareva, Y., Cole, M.M., & Brenowitz, E.A. (2020). Inflammation Induced by Natural Neuronal Death and LPS Regulates Neural Progenitor Cell Proliferation in the Healthy Adult Brain. eNeuro, 7(4).https://doi.org/10.1523/ENEURO.0023-20.2020