Undergraduate Research

Caroline Pierotti '22

OUR Featured Researcher: Caroline Pierotti '22

Photo credit: Tanya Rosen-Jones
Photo credit: Tanya Rosen-Jones

Caroline Pierotti (she/her/any) is a Neuroscience major conducting mentored research under Professor Tracie Paine. Her project is titled “Cocaine-Induced Impulsivity Observed in Rats Exposed to Early Adverse Experiences". 

Please describe your project: 

  The Paine Lab's current research focuses on how early adverse experiences affect cocaine-induced impulsivity in rats. We measure impulsivity with two different operant conditioning tasks, one being a Probabilistic Reversal Task where rats have to switch the lever they press when the reward contingencies change, and the other is a Differential Reinforcement of Low rates of responding (DRL), which requires the rats to wait for a certain period of time before pressing to receive a reward. In these tasks, the rat is rewarded with a pellet when they make the correct choice or wait a certain period of time. After the rats are well trained on these tasks, we observe their performance after injecting them with varying levels of cocaine, which is a drug that prolongs the amount of time dopamine has in the synapse by inhibiting dopamine reuptake inhibitors in the brain. We are currently in the data processing phase, but in a previous study in the Paine lab, poorer performance on tasks with cocaine administration was observed only in the female, early adverse experience group, so we are now looking further into the differences of sex and early stressors with this cohort of animals by also taking vaginal swabs of female rats daily to see if there are coincidences of behavior and estrous state.

A brief summary of your research: 

Our lab is Investigating the interplay between early adverse experiences and sex on cocaine-induced impulsivity. 

Why is your research important? 

Societally we hope to translate some of our findings to better understand humans who have lived through early adverse experiences and how this can affect how they process drugs of abuse. Additionally, gaining insight into how early adverse experiences and cocaine affect dopamine systems in the brain will lead to better characterization of the system and may offer more therapies for those with substance use disorders down the line. I was asked by someone, "Why cocaine?" and not opioids or other common drugs of abuse, and this is because we know that cocaine increases impulsivity while opioids do not reliably do so, so there definitely could be sex, and early stress effects with other drugs of abuse we just aren't looking at them in this lab. Our research has broader implications within the fields of biology and neuroscience because it includes a female biological perspective which is largely understudied even today and may have a significant impact on characteristics of drug use and abuse in users. 

What does the process of doing your research look like?

For behavior, I usually get into the lab around 1 pm on the days I'm assigned to come in and run the rats in the behavior room that we have. Behavior usually takes 3-4 hours, depending on whether we have injections and the type of test. Unless we're training on a new skill, we usually do these alone, but we teamed up to do injections when we were learning, for example, a 'you hold, I stick' dynamic. We also have weekly lab meetings, and reading, writing, or data processing is usually done on our own time or in coordination with other members.

What knowledge has your research contributed to your field? What are your findings so far?

We are in the early phases of data analysis, but it looks like there may be sex differences in the effects of early life stress on adult behavior and on the effects of cocaine on impulsive behavior as well. This could have implications for how we treat humans with substance use disorders. 

In what ways have you showcased your research?

I have been able to present with other members of my lab Zoe Martin del Campo and Evan Swanson, at the mGluRs conference this semester, as well as in Junior Practicum winter term/micro internship project presentations. 

How did you get involved in research? 

My passion for research began when I was in high school. I had the opportunity to join a geology lab at the University of New Mexico and learned so much from polishing very, very small rocks for a year and loved it. At Oberlin, it was my goal to join a lab because of this positive experience, but I was dissuaded from joining a lab my first year because others told me it was improbable. In my second year, I was able to enter the Paine lab through Professor Paine's winter term project, and after keeping in touch with Professor Paine, I was able to join the lab in the summer of 2020.

What is your favorite aspect of the research process?

I love being behind the scenes and doing research because it is hands-on learning at its finest. Being able to put research that I have done into words and being able to translate experiments I've read into what I'm physically doing are rewarding processes made possible by having laboratory experience as a point of reference. 

How has working with your mentor impacted the development of your research project? How has it impacted you as a researcher?  

Because this is Prof. Paine's lab, she has seen the development of many different students and research projects at Oberlin. Her wealth of knowledge in how to teach techniques to students as well as being such a seasoned researcher has given me a lot of insight into what research at an undergraduate institution looks like. Professor Paine is an excellent mentor and strong woman in STEM, and I'm taking notes from her success and teaching as I plan to enter academia further down the road

How has the research you’ve conducted contributed to your professional or academic development?   

Being in the Paine lab has allowed me to be in a more active role in data analysis and interpretation and has allowed me to experience the execution of behavioral experiments from birth to death and after. Being part of a small undergraduate lab has put more responsibility on my peers and me to communicate effectively and has developed my skills in figure creation and poster writing.

What advice would you give to a younger student wanting to get involved in research in your field?

Start talking to professors! Every researcher loves to talk about their research, so engaging with professors and showing interest as soon as you have an interest is the best thing you can do. Also, keep in mind that research doesn't end within Oberlin. There are so many summer research opportunities and labs outside of Oberlin that may be willing to work long-distance with you. Because I started researching at the end of my 3rd year, most of my research experience comes from outside Oberlin. There is no right path, and if you're interested and actively seeking out research opportunities, you will succeed! It may just take some persistence.