Dr. Veenema discusses working with undergraduates and conducting research in her lab.
Dr. Alexa Veenema, associate professor of behavioral neuroscience, won the 2019 Undergraduate Research Faculty Mentor of the Year Award for Michigan State University. This annual award recognizes faculty who have demonstrated an outstanding commitment to mentoring undergraduate researchers.
Dr. Alexa Veenema was an associate professor at Boston College before she came to MSU in 2017. Dr. Veenema teaches undergraduate courses Brain and Behavior (PSY 209) and Neuroscience of Psychopathology (PSY 493) and a graduate course on the Neurobiology of Stress.
Dr. Veenema’s research focuses on the neural basis of social behaviors. Dr. Veenema’s lab uses rats and mice as model organisms to examine the role of neuropeptides, such as oxytocin and vasopressin, in regulating social behavior. Lab members employ a combination of behavioral, molecular, biochemical, genetic, chemogenetic, and pharmacological techniques to address their research questions. The Veenema lab currently consists of 1 research associate, 1 technician, 2 postdocs, 2 graduate students, and 6 undergraduate students.
Lab members are having a very successful year. The lab received 3 Provost’s Undergraduate Research Initiative (PURI) awards to support undergraduates Ann Marie Scazzero, Leigha Brown, and Morgen Henry to do research in the lab over the summer in preparation for their senior theses. Ann Marie Scazzero also received the College of Social Science Dean’s Assistantship and the Hymen and Miriam Stein Scholarship to cover living expenses over the summer and her senior year while doing research in the lab. Additionally, undergraduate students Ashley Chambers and Ann Marie Scazzero received first prizes for their poster presentations at the University Undergraduate Research and Arts Forum (UURAF).
Graduate student Jessica Lee received the College of Social Science Research Scholars Award. Postdoc Dr. Katie Yoest received the Ford Foundation postdoctoral fellowship and a National Science Foundation (NSF) Postdoctoral fellowship. Postdoc Dr. Christina Reppucci received a travel award from the Society for Neuroscience to attend and present at the World Congress of the International Brain Research Organization (IBRO) in South Korea this fall. Dr. Repucci also received a New Investigator Award to give a talk at the annual meeting of the Society for Behavioral Neuroendocrinology in June, and she received a poster award at the first annual MSU Motivated Behavior Symposium.
We asked Dr. Veenema about working with undergraduate students and the day to day processes in the lab:
What do you look for in undergraduates interested in joining the lab? What are the day to day expectations for students working in the lab?
“We encourage undergraduates to join the lab in their sophomore year. It is beneficial to them to have a little bit of neuroscience background through classes prior to joining the lab. Then we hope that they stay in the lab until they graduate, because they will need to learn so many different behavioral neuroscience techniques. In the first semester, they are in the lab for a minimum of five hours per week and will learn some basic methods. If they wish to pursue a senior thesis, they should be in the lab 15 hours per week. This will allow them to be more involved in the day-to-day research. The summer is the most exciting time for undergrads, because they have a chance to participate in full-time research, for which they get paid, and this allows them to be involved in research projects from start to finish. They are also expected to take part in all lab activities such as weekly lab meetings and bi-weekly journal clubs. In these meetings every lab member reports what they did in the previous week and what they will do in the upcoming week, students will present their research findings, and we read and discuss relevant papers. The aim of the undergraduate training in the lab is to provide them with an understanding of what neuroscience research is about and to give them the experience of what it would look like to be a graduate student.”
How many undergraduate students are in the lab?
“We currently have 6 undergraduate students in the lab. The number of undergrads is limited by the availability of daily supervisors, which are typically graduate students and post docs. The training is so broad and there are so many techniques the undergraduates need to acquire that it takes a lot of time for them to learn, so it also takes someone dedicated to teaching them to do it. They need a daily supervisor who will guide them through that whole process and provide them with rigorous and solid research training.”
Do undergraduates and graduate students come up with their own research ideas or do they carry out tasks for ongoing research projects?
“Being able to come up with their own research ideas is an important part of being a graduate student but this is not expected from undergraduates. If undergraduates are in the lab for a couple years and do their senior thesis they will get a more independent project based on their own interests and they will be able to pursue a novel research question. But this is always under the supervision of a more senior lab member and none of the projects in my lab can be carried out without the help of others, so the research in my lab depends on a lot of collaboration among lab members. Undergraduates in my lab typically contribute to collecting data that will be used for publications and they all become co-authors on publications.”
What do undergraduate students seem to enjoy most about working in the lab?
“I think that they are really excited about contributing to a better understanding of how the brain works and doing so by being part of a team. It’s nice to see them being fascinated by what a rat brain looks like, that they can carefully dissect a rat brain themselves, and cut it in very thin sections and mount these sections on glass for later processing of specific markers in the brain. Microscopy is another exciting part where they can see the different types of neurons and can for example quantify how many of these neurons were activated in response to a social encounter. But perhaps the one technique that they get excited about the most is performing rat brain surgeries. This is a standard technique in my lab and we perform almost every week brain surgeries. So, for undergraduate students to learn how to do brain surgeries is beneficial to us because we can produce more data in a shorter period of time. These brain surgeries can for example consist of implantation of a cannula through which agonists and antagonists can be administered to subsequently determine their effects on social behavior, or implantation of a microdialysis probe which allows us to measure how the release of neurotransmitters in specific brain regions is altered when rats are exposed to social behavior tests.”
What do you enjoy most about working with undergraduate students in the lab?
“I really like that I learn so much from them. They ask questions that I would never think of asking and it often makes me rethink certain concepts that I took for granted. Having undergrads in the lab is also great for the graduate students and post docs because they are in charge of training and mentoring the undergrads and this helps them learn how to explain certain topics and become better teachers themselves.
Perhaps the most rewarding is to see all the trainees grow so much, particularly undergraduate students. They come in the lab totally naïve about what it is like to work with laboratory animals and to do research, but over time they become more self-confident as they gain a better understanding of experimental design and have a better grasp on what research actually is. Although the idea of contributing to new discoveries is very exciting, most of the time research can be very frustrating because it requires a lot of trouble shooting, patience, and perseverance. To see them going through this process and becoming more confident human beings who now apply their more developed critical thinking skills in research and in general, is extremely rewarding.”
What can faculty members do to improve the experiences of undergraduate researchers in their lab?
“Not all undergraduate students can afford working in a lab on a voluntary basis. Being still relatively new to MSU, I was not aware that there are so many opportunities to apply for funding to financially support undergraduates who want to do research in a lab. Some are based on proposals submitted by faculty, but there are also several initiatives where undergraduate students can apply for scholarships to work in a lab over the summer and even during the semester. I think it is important to make both faculty and undergraduates aware of these opportunities. These scholarships could be especially important for underrepresented minorities and students who might not have the financial background to allow them to just volunteer in a lab.”
To learn more about research in the Veenema lab, go to: https://veenemalab.psy.msu.edu/