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Student studies rat recess

Liz FineSmith '11 interacts with one of her 'subjects.' Photo by Lilah Raptopoulos '11
Liz FineSmith '11 interacts with one of her 'subjects.' Photo by Lilah Raptopoulos '11

On a sunny Tuesday afternoon in early June, rising junior Liz FineSmith is on the second floor of Bill Hall playing with rats.

"I know this doesn't look like work," she says, "But they're babies, and I want them to be less scared of me. One climbed up my arm yesterday."

She puts the one she is holding back in its cage, closes it and sets it along a wall that houses 31 of its small white counterparts. They are all spotlessly clean, fit within the palm of her hand and have little red eyes that look like flying fish roe. From nine to four each day, Liz is testing how play affects rats' brains over time. Along the wall of one of Bill Hall's neuroscience labs are two rows of 16 rats living in an "enriched" environment, with toys scattered throughout their individual cages. Below those cages, 16 more rats are in "non-enriched" environments, their cages empty of everything but food, water and wood chips.

For the first month, Liz will give the enriched rats "rat recess" each day, during which she monitors how they interact with each other and their toys. At the end of the month, both sets of rats will be put in a maze so that Liz can compare the development of their spatial learning. In the second month, she will look at the rats' brains themselves to see what parts of them play affects. She expects to see some changes in parts of the hypothalamus and the cerebellum.

In order to gain approval to work with the rats, Liz worked with Associate Professor of Psychology Ruth Grahn to create a proposal that elaborates on the work of previous students. As with all experiments in Grahn's lab, the proposal has been reviewed and approved by the Connecticut College Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee, which also inspects the facilities. The committee includes scientists, an ethicist, a student, a veterinarian and a community member and answers to the Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare and the USDA, which performs a once-per-year unannounced inspection.

"We are careful to minimize the number of rats we need and to be sure that they are as comfortable as we can make them," said Grahn. "In my opinion the research we perform has two primary goals that make using the rats worthwhile: exploring the neural basis of mental illness and training future scientists who will continue this work."

Liz is one of 17 students here this summer on a Keck grant, which provides her free housing and a $3,200 stipend for conducting science research. However, Liz is conducting an independent study of her own, rather than aiding a professor's research. She tailored the proposal to her interests; her professor is a resource for questions, but not in charge of the lab. Liz is essentially in control of the input and output of her summer. Therefore, Liz's interests collide in this project: first, her professional goal is to become an occupational therapist and help disabled children learn basic skills. Similarly, she has been raised from a young age to be interested in the brain, which is why she chose to major in neuroscience.

"My dad's a neurologist, and he's been giving me books on the brain since I was seven. It's just so cool," she said.

Finally, Liz identifies herself as a "little kid" who is fascinated by playing, and the importance of play, in learning. In this project, Liz is assessing how well her rats can learn in different environments, focusing most specifically on the large-term benefits of play.

"Rats' brains are actually very similar to ours. A ton of research is done with rats because very important parts of our brains work in the same ways. So all of this work can be applied to humans," she said.

Liz plans to continue this work through the remainder of college. The research will culminate in a senior thesis, where she will correlate her own findings to similar studies that have been performed on humans. And if it doesn't go the way she thinks it will?

"It's totally possible that it won't. But that's the way it goes. With this stuff, if something turns out different, there's probably a good reason why, and it'll bring us along another path."

In the meantime, Liz will be enjoying the company of 32 balls of wriggly fur.

- Lilah Raptopoulos '11

June 9, 2009