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Nest Building

A student handles a male zebra finch outside its cage.

August 26, 2013

Assistant Professor of Psychology Akshat Vyas had barely settled into his campus office last August, let alone had any time to set up his behavioral neuroscience and auditory processing lab.

What a difference a year makes. With help from a group of enthusiastic student research assistants, his nascent lab is starting to take shape.

Vyas began recruiting students during the spring semester, targeting underclassmen from different academic backgrounds to work together in an interdisciplinary research environment. He found a cross section of DePauw’s departments and programs: biochemistry, biology, music, physics and psychology majors; Honor Scholars and ITAP interns. Five of them received funding through Student-Faculty Summer Research Grants and the J. William and Katherine C. Asher Research Fund for Psychological Science to get the lab up and running during summer break. After all, these things don’t build themselves.

But there’s no neuroscience aisle at Walmart. While some of the equipment spread across the lab’s three rooms could be ordered online or from catalogs, items such as small holding cages, sound-proof testing units and the audiovisual circuitry connecting them all to computers had to be designed and built by hand.

“You’re so used to hearing about what other people are doing this summer in labs that are already established, but here we are building everything from scratch,” says Courtney M. Leeds, a physics major from Pewaukee, Wis. “We can all use a Dremel now.”

As for the tenants of the new digs, Vyas purchased 30 zebra finches in late April. By late summer, two months after he and the students paired them into couples for mating, their numbers had nearly doubled.

“If you give them good temperature, food, water and humidity, they are like little breeding factories,” Vyas says.

Zebra finches are more than that to his research, of course. Unlike animals that innately bark, neigh or meow, a small number of species such as songbirds like the zebra finch, humans and dolphins have to learn their more sophisticated methods of communication. Typically, a zebra finch male will learn his courting song from his father or another tutor he was raised with, making the thumb-sized birds a good model for studying everything from sound processing and language acquisition to memory.

“When a juvenile zebra finch learns a song, the song must be stored somewhere in the brain, so you can go look for where a memory is stored,” Vyas says. “This has been an intractable question for a very long time. We all have memories. How are they stored?”

Vyas’ earlier research uncovered another question when he found that zebra finches process sound depending on hormonal levels. The exact same sounds were being made, but the finches’ brains were hearing them differently. This discovery led to one of the research projects his lab began this summer, testing whether estrogen levels change the frequency at which a female zebra finch perceives a particular sound.

The lab’s second line of inquiry deals with how motivations such as food and sex interact and influence a zebra finch’s behavior. Because male zebra finches use songs to compete for females, it figures that some are more attractive than others. Generally speaking, a bird that had a healthy upbringing and exposure to lots of other talented singers tends to produce the most attractive sounds.

Then there are the rare superstars whose songs evoke a kind of Beatlemania among females.

“I like to call them the Brad Pitts,” Vyas says.

These, well, “Bird Pitts” mix rhythmic and tonal patterns to produce extremely complex, extremely attractive songs. Only a small fraction of male zebra finches Vyas encountered during doctoral and postdoctoral research at CUNY and Columbia University were capable of such stardom.

But what if a female associates one of these particularly attractive songs with something they absolutely hate – for example, the lights being turned off? Can a bird be so motivated by sexual urge or hunger that it ignores fear?

Answers to these questions are still a long way off, but as a new academic year begins, Vyas’s lab is finally on track. Three of his summer research assistants – Leeds and fellow juniors Erin L. Minnick, a biology major from Monon, Ind., and Zixuan “Elaine” Chen, a psychology major from Beijing – remained on campus long enough to collect their first sets of data.

Working on a project no one of them had the training to handle alone, the three students leaned on each other’s strengths to get by. “Erin understands the biology aspect,” Chen says, “so when Professor Vyas said something about biology that the rest of us didn’t understand, she explained it to us. I am a psychology major, so I know some of the behavioral part. And Courtney knows circuitry really well. We learned a lot from each other in the lab.”

“Hopefully, our lab will be an example of where neuroscience as a discipline is right now,” Vyas says. “It is no longer just biology or psychology. There are fairly complicated electronics involved, and a whole lot of physics involved. And then there is the building of cages, taking care of the animals and cleaning up after them. My hope is that these students are not just learning in one dimension. By the time they are done, they will have a pretty holistic look at this kind of research.”

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