Author Archives: Amy Jo Stavnezer

NSF Summer REU in Neuroscience

A Distributed Network of Neuroscience Scholars

This Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) Site award, funded by the National Science Foundation, to The College of Wooster, Wooster, OH, Ohio Wesleyan University, Delaware, OH, Kenyon College, Gambier, OH, and Earlham College, Richmond, IN will support 16 students for 9 weeks during the summers of 2016-2018.  Undergraduate participants (US Citizens or Permanent Residents only) will receive a stipend of $4,950 in addition to housing, meal and travel allowances.  You must be a continuing undergraduate and a US Citizen or permanent resident to apply.

Summer of 2017 dates: May 15, 2017 – July 14, 2017You must be able to participate in all 9-weeks.

This REU unites the successful neuroscience undergraduate research programs of four predominately undergraduate institutions in Northern Ohio and Eastern Indiana. The REU consists of four research teams, one per partner institution, each with four students and two faculty mentors for a nine-week summer REU. Each group will focus on a separate research project from a faculty mentor’s area of expertise. Participants will work on challenging, authentic research questions and learn methods, skills and content to succeed in their research endeavors at their home institutions. In addition, during biweekly consortium meetings, participants will learn methods, skills and content on research methods being used at the partner institutions.

In 2014 and 2015, the associated faculty and institutions successfully guided more than 30 research participants through a nearly identical program, funded through the GLCA. Participants report significant gains in confidence using a variety of neuroscience methods following consortium instruction.

Figure 1 8-24

Participants will also engage in discussion on their projects, learn about the progress of their peers, network with other students, hear about career opportunities in academe and industry, develop ethical and responsible research conduct strategies and improve CV, cover letter and interview skills during the weekly consortium meetings that will bring the research groups together in-person and virtually. Students will present their findings at a research symposium at the conclusion of the program.

Here are the students that participated in our summer program during 2016:


Research themes associated with this REU span the breadth of Neuroscience include genetic model systems, neuromodulation, cellular responses to neurotrauma, rodent behavioral assessment, and cognitive and stress neuroscience. Participating labs are located in Biology, Chemistry, Physics and Psychology departments.  A 3-day opening workshop will introduce students to the research themes, responsible conduct of research, mentoring, development of research plans, and data management.

It is anticipated that 8 students, primarily from schools with limited research opportunities, will join 8 students from the host institutions and participating faculty in a learning community focused on collaboration across the depth and breadth of Neuroscience. We are particularly interested in participants who are first-generation college students and those from groups that are typically underrepresented in science. Students will be selected based on their interest in research, academic record, and other factors. Students will learn how research is conducted, data are analyzed, and results are presented to both scientific and public audiences.

Apply here by February 3

A common web-based assessment tool used by all REU programs funded by the Division of Biological Infrastructure (Directorate for Biological Sciences) will be used to determine the effectiveness of the program. Students will be tracked after the program in order to determine student career paths and asked to respond to an automatic email sent via the NSF reporting system.

More information about the program  by contacting the PI (Dr. Amy Jo Stavnezer at or the co-PI (Dr. Jennifer Yates at


Summer research projects for 2017:

Faculty Mentor: Surendra Ambegaokar, PhD                             Ohio Wesleyan University

This project focuses on how certain genes may regulate aspects of both neuronal growth and neuronal health. In particular, the role of microRNA-7 (miR-7) will be studied in human neural progenitor cell lines (SH-SY5Y). This cell line is derived from a human glioblastoma, and miR-7 expression is also related to cancer in many other non-neuronal cell types. Previous research has found changes in miR-7 expression during brain development. Students in my lab will continue previous work on measuring the expression of miR-7 before, during, and after neuronal differentiation. This project will also transfect SH-SY5Y cells to alter the expression of miR-7 to examine the effects on neuronal differentiation. Reduced expression of miR-7 also reduces neurotoxicity due to the protein Tau, which is highly related to Alzheimer disease and other neurodegenerative disorders. Students will have the ability to continue research on the molecular interaction between miR-7 and Tau. This project will allow training in a variety of molecular and cellular techniques, namely maintaining mammalian cells in culture, RNA and miRNA purification, and quantification of RNA via quantitiative PCR (qPR).



Faculty Mentor: Christian G. Fink, PhD                                      Ohio Wesleyan University

Epilepsy affects roughly 1% of the world’s population [1], with approximately 10% of these people being effectively treated by surgical removal of an epileptic focus [2]. This approach is a method of last resort when anti-epileptic drugs are ineffective, since removing a portion of a patient’s brain may have undesirable side effects. In this project we will theoretically investigate the feasibility of preventing seizure propagation by severing a few individual connections from an epileptic focus, rather than removing the focus in its entirety.

We will explore this idea by running simulations of epileptic seizures using a recently developed theoretical model of seizure dynamics [3], as well as the connectivity map of the macaque brain [4]. The question we seek to answer is: how can we identify which neural connection(s) should be removed in order to best inhibit seizure propagation? We will use tools from dynamical systems theory and network theory to formulate quantitative measures to answer this question.

This project will therefore involve developing a computational model of the macaque brain in order to model the propagation of epileptic seizures. After learning about fundamental techniques in computational neuroscience, students will write code in Python to run these large-scale simulations. Overall, the project is appropriate for any student with experience in differential equations and computer programming, and who has an interest in computational neuroscience.


[1] Thurman et. al. “Standards for epidemiologic students and surveillance of epilepsy,” Epilepsia, 2011.

[2] Surgery for Epilepsy, NIH Consensus Statement, 1990 Mar 19- 21; 8(2):1-20.

[3] Jirsa et. al. “On the nature of seizure dynamics,” BRAIN, 2014.

[4] Modha and Singh. “Network architecture of the long-distance pathways in the macaque brain,” PNAS, 2010.



Faculty Mentor: Grit Herzmann, PhD                                                     College of Wooster

The Herzmann lab investigates the neural mechanisms of how humans are able to perceive faces, memorize visual material, and remember this material later on. The research focuses especially on cases of superior performance as found in face processing of own-race faces. Research shows that all people are better at learning and remembering faces from their own-race as compared to a different race. Understanding how perception and memory is improved for own-race faces can be translated into training programs for people suffering from learning disabilities or dementia. REU participants will use event-related brain potentials (ERPs) to measure brain activation while participants perceive, memorize, and recognize faces. Participants will be involved in study design, stimulus choice and preparation, data collection, and literature review. Participants will be able to experience a large part of the experimental process of human neuroscience research from conception to setup to data collection.



Faculty Mentor: Harry Itagaki, PhD                                                        Kenyon College

The enteric nervous system (ENS) is the part of the peripheral nervous system associated with the digestive tract.  In vertebrates, the ENS has as many neurons as the spinal cord, but what we understand is just a tiny percentage of what is known of other parts of the CNS and the PNS.  As the gut and its microbiota are increasingly implicated in overall health and behavior, it is imperative that we start to gain a better understanding of the ENS.  Using insect models, the aims of this project are to look at the expression of different neurotransmitters and neuromodulators in the ENS, investigate their physiological effects, and assess their interactions with diet and gut microbiota.



Faculty Mentor: Beth Mechlin, PhD                                                        Earlham College

The Mechlin lab examines the relationships between stress and health, since chronic stress can negatively impact health in a variety of ways (McEwen, 1998).  Projects in the Mechlin lab focus on causes of stress and pain in human participants.  Summer studies may include examining how using apps to practice mediation or gratitude influences physiological stress responses, and investigating how various factors influence pain sensitivity.  REU participants working on this project will be involved in participant recruitment, data collection, data entry, and data analysis.  They will learn how to administer psychosocial questionnaires, measure blood pressure and heart rate, collect saliva for cortisol measures, administer a social stress test, and administer a cold pain test.  REU participants will have the opportunity to add measures to the protocol to test their own hypotheses (for example, a previous student added a measure of perfectionism).



Faculty Mentor: Sarah Peterson, PhD                                                     Kenyon College

The Petersen lab investigates the genetics of developing nervous systems, including the myriad interactions of neurons, glial cells, and their environments. We are particularly interested in the development of the myelin sheath, which is formed by specialized glial cells to surround and protect axons in the central and peripheral nervous systems (CNS and PNS). To answer our questions, we use the zebrafish model system, which has become a premiere genetic model organism for myelination (D’Rozario, Monk, and Petersen, 2016). Recently, a large-scale forward genetic screen at Washington University in St. Louis uncovered a number of zebrafish mutants with reduced terminal differentiation of glial cells. We are characterizing a subset of these mutants in the Petersen lab to understand how the affected gene normally regulates nervous system development. One of our mutants has severe patterning defects, including deficits in axon guidance and neural crest cell migration. Initial genomic analysis suggests this phenotype is due to aberrant muscle patterning, highlighting the coordinated development of multiple PNS cell types with other organ systems. Other mutants have phenotypes restricted to either CNS or PNS myelin, suggesting a specific role of the affected gene in myelinating glial cells. REU participants would have the opportunity to phenotypically characterize mutants in order to discover when (stage) and where (cell type) nervous system development is affected. In addition, computational analysis of whole genome sequencing data can uncover candidate causative mutations in these strains. REU participants may be trained in zebrafish husbandry, vertebrate CNS and PNS neuroanatomy, genetics and genomics, phenotypic characterization and expression analysis via in situ hybridization, and in vivo live imaging.



Faculty Mentor: Bob Rosenberg, PhD                                                      Earlham College

In humans, spinal cord injury causes life-long paralysis. But when spinal cords of lamprey (a primitive vertebrate fish) are cut, the neurons recover from the injury, regrow, and reconnect. Within 10-12 weeks, the animals swim normally again. The over-arching goal of this research is to determine the roles of sodium channel expression during regeneration of lamprey spinal cord neurons. This line of research could contribute to new knowledge that eventually leads to improved treatment of devastating spinal cord injuries.

Our hypothesis is that expression of voltage-gated sodium channels is decreased in lamprey spinal cord neurons following spinal cord injury. Voltage-gated sodium channels are required for electrical signaling in neurons (action potentials), but excess activation can cause hyperexcitability and cell death. We have preliminary evidence that lamprey neurons survive trauma better than those in higher vertebrates because they down-regulate sodium channel expression. This evidence is from immunofluorescence microscopy, in which voltage-gated sodium channels are labeled with specific antibodies and then visualized with fluorescent secondary antibodies. Axons with high levels of sodium channel expression are significantly fewer in number in regenerating spinal cords than in uninjured spinal cords. In addition, we have preliminary evidence that chronic inhibition of sodium channels during the recovery period accelerates the recovery of swimming ability.

Students working on this project will learn techniques in small-animal survival surgery, spinal cord dissections, biological tissue fixation, cryosectioning, immunofluorescence labeling, fluorescence microscopy, image quantification, computational image analysis, and small-animal behavioral assays. Additional techniques may include Western blot, ELISA (enzyme-linked immuno-sorbent assay), and electrophysiological recordings of resting and action potentials. Students will work together as a group while they learn the techniques, and then each student (or pair of students) will choose a sub-project to focus on for the remainder of the summer.



Faculty Mentor: Amy Jo Stavnezer, PhD                                                 College of Wooster

The Stavnezer lab is currently testing the impact of hormonal manipulations across the lifespan on the learning and memory in rodents. An exciting and still unanswered area of research surrounds the neurobehavioral and cellular influence of hormone replacement therapy on aged females. Female rats that receive an ovariectomy followed by a mid-range tonic estrogen treatment demonstrate improved spatial working memory ability (Mennenga et al., 2015), however, treated aged ovariectomized rats do not improve in spatial reference memory (Talboom et al., 2008). In addition the majority of these rodent data have been collected on virgin female rats despite the fact that 75% of women will give birth. REU participants will learn surgical procedures, hormone injections, behavioral assessment of activity, spatial learning, working and reference memory, and histology of various brain regions using cell body stains, immunocytochemistry and cell counts to help address these questions. In addition, we will work with data sets from previously completed experiments on hormone, environmental disruptors and strain differences in rodent behavior. A strong understanding of statistics will assist in working on those particular projects. Lastly, the lab is taking on a new research challenge to assess the ability of frequency specific microcurrent on pain, healing or possibly as treatment in a rodent model of attention deficit disorder. The participants will become familiar with the literature and procedures and then determine an avenue of hormone study or microcurrent research for their own project.