OUR Featured Researcher: Dee Pegues '24
Dee Pegues (they/them) is a Neuroscience and Cinema Studies major conducting mentored research under Professor Christopher Howard. Their project is titled “Dopamine’s Role in Updating New Time Intervals".
Please describe your project:
An organism’s ability to appropriately assess time intervals is key to survival. However, brain mechanisms related to time processing remain partially understood. Previous studies have shown that dopamine (DA) neurons projecting to the striatum modulates timed behaviors, but no studies have assessed if dopamine contributes to learning about new time intervals. Here, we used a serial fixed interval (SFI) task to expose animals to fixed time intervals and then switched the interval durations after several trials. By using optogenetics, a technique that allows us to stimulate specific neurons, during SFI, we aim to enhance the amount of DA in the brain and see how it affects their timing behavior and the rate of updating behaviors to new durations.
Why is your research important?
Very little research has been done on timing behavior in the striatum. Not only will our research advance the timing-behavior field, but it will also help us better understand disorders and diseases with timing-related difficulties like Parkinson, Huntington’s, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and schizophrenia.
What does the process of doing your research look like?
The great thing about behavioral neuroscience is that the mice do all the work! A typical day will consist of two labmates putting the mice in special boxes where they can do the SFI task, and then we analyze the data spit out. Other than that, we split the work with surgeries and making fiberoptics (for optogenetics).
What knowledge has your research contributed to your field? What are your findings so far?
While we do not have results from optogenetics yet, we do have results that confirm that mice can learn SFI! What is most interesting is that mice and rats are both very good at timing, and they can adapt to new time intervals even after one trial. This gives us a great platform to figure out how the brain does this type of learning.
In what ways have you showcased your research?
So far, we have a poster that was recently in a conference! We have also done some presentations on the topic as well!
How did you get involved in research?
Research is something that I would like to continue postgraduate. Likewise seeing all the cool research posters in the neuroscience hallway really compelled me to seek out Prof. Howard for a research opportunity in his lab during the summer of 2022.
What is your favorite aspect of the research process?
Learning all the odds and ends of the research processes has been the most rewarding for me. It’s really satisfying to work with and understand the equipment that I have read about in papers. I just get excited from learning new things in the lab!
How has working with your mentor impacted the development of your research project? How has it impacted you as a researcher?
Working with Prof. Howard has been a great experience! He has a real “hands off” approach to mentoring that allows us students to fully engage in what we’re learning and collaborate with each other.
How has the research you’ve conducted contributed to your professional or academic development?
As I’ve stated before, I am interested in pursuing more research and getting a PhD. The Howard lab has provided me with valuable experience that not many graduate students can say they have.
What advice would you give to a younger student wanting to get involved in research in your field?
Just ask! Ask that professor that you want to join their lab! Don’t worry about you being too inexperienced or “not good enough.” We all had to start somewhere and asking around is a great place to start!