BY ADAM FALLUJI – STAFF WRITER
A complete education is a difficult thing to define. What constitutes a full breadth of knowledge might be up to interpretation, but at Centre College, students are provided with enriching opportunities to expand their knowledge and pursue diverse interests. One such opportunity is applying what one has learned in class by conducting research with a faculty member.
Research fuels the sciences. By means of the scientific method and experimentation, our understanding of the world around us grows. Made easier by Centre’s small and dedicated community, students have the opportunity to make their mark on the world and contribute to scientific progress at any point during their education.
Nearly all Centre professors allow students to join them in conducting research. Associate Professor of Psychology and Behavioral Neuroscience Dr. Brian Cusato researches learning in the animal sexual behavior system and has mentored a number of Behavioral Neuroscience and Psychology students. He teaches the BNS 210 Research Methods course to students who have just declared a BNS major. Through this class, the students not only learn what research entails but also conduct their own research project in small groups over the course of the semester.
“Students need experience beforehand to understand what they’re getting themselves into,” Dr. Cusato said. “It’s sort of a gradual build-up. In Psych 205, we talk about what it’s like to do an experiment. In 210 you do it, but with two or three group mates. By the time they’re juniors, students come out feeling they have the ability to work autonomously.”
After introductory research courses, some students go on to either work on an ongoing project a professor is conducting or design their own advanced research projects with supervision from a faculty member.
Research projects function as capstones for science majors. Students meet with their research mentor for one hour each week and also meet for an hour in a seminar lecture with other students conducting advanced research to discuss general issues such as ethics. Conducting research is also typically done on the students’ own time.
One can also earn academic credit hours through research opportunities. Performing research for one semester gives a student three credit hours while participating in a two-semester project gives them four. In addition to receiving credit while at Centre, research strengthens a student’s application to graduate programs.
“Graduate programs look for students that can show a sustained interest and commitment to a research program over multiple semesters,” Dr. Cusato said. “They want to be confident that they’re investing in good students. To prepare students for graduate work, we give them the experiences graduate programs are looking for. As a result, we can speak directly the qualities they’re looking for when writing letters of recommendations for students.”
Upperclassmen are not the only ones who can get involved with research, however. First- years with high aspirations can get involved as well.
“There are some first-year students that will come to me and ask to get involved in my research,” Dr. Cusato said. “They don’t have their own research question at that point; they’re just interested in getting involved in our research. It’s a good way to get involved early and I don’t discourage that.”
Centre can adapt to the ambitions of first-years by allowing them to get their feet wet and even earn course credit for observing and assisting in research.
“We have a course called Introduction to Research, which allows a first-year student to have a one-credit, pass/fail experience before they take higher-level Psychology or Behavioral Neuroscience research classes such as Psych 205 or BNS 210,” Dr. Cusato said. “They attend lab meetings with upperclassmen conducting research, and they may even help run trials or participate in reading articles.”
With all these resources at their disposal, students should not hesitate to approach faculty about research. There are no formalities to observe when asking a professor about research, as all professors are happy to discuss options with students.
“I would encourage students to start that conversation in any way. I think too many students wait for divine intervention to determine what they’re interested in, or think that the passion for research has to already be there,” Dr. Cusato said. “I respect the student who knocks on my door and asks me plainly what research is like. We might talk for an hour and they might decide they’re not interested; but that student still learned something about themselves and we learned something about each other.”
Sometimes a professor or another student will start the conversation and invite a student to participate in research that profoundly impacts his/her Centre experience. Junior Behavioral Neuroscience major Carter Baughman was not particularly interested in research when she arrived at Centre. However, it has since become an important part of her academic schedule.
“I began doing research the fall of my sophomore year. An older student who knew I was interested in neuroscience research approached me and asked if I would be interested in joining their lab because a few of their members were graduating,” Baughman said. “At that time, I didn’t know much about how doing research at Centre worked. I approached Dr. Skogsberg and then began doing research as a BNS 250 student. This is only one credit hour per-semester so it’s a great way to see if you are interested in research before committing too much time.”
Baughman found her stride in research after her semester with Dr. Skogsberg and continued to pursue a BNS research track.
“I loved doing research in Dr. Skogsberg’s lab as a BNS 250 student, so I took BNS 350, which is more like a class, and is four credit hours over the course of a year. After this, I will become a BNS 351 student which is three credit hours in one semester. Many students take three classes and research as opposed to four classes and research since it is very time-consuming. Many different labs at Centre are in different stages of their research and this determines how much time you will spend each week,” Baughman said. “My research lab is currently running participants and this can be done on the student’s own schedule. I would say I spend about 10 to 12 hours each week on my research project, whether it be scheduling participants, running participants, analyzing data, or preparing for a presentation such as KAS, RICE, or MPA.”
Carter has presented her research at several conferences and intends to continue research in graduate school
“In Dr. Skogsberg’s lab, we use electroencephalography (EEG) to study patterns of brain activity on different visual attention tasks. Specifically, we study the P300 wave which is elicited when the participants see a ‘rare and meaningful stimulus,’” Baughman said. “Currently, I am studying the differences in performance on visual attention tasks between people that have had concussions and those that have not. We hypothesize that participants who have had a concussion will have a lower amplitude of the P300 wave and also will have a later onset of the P300 wave,” she said. “Doing research at Centre has greatly influenced my future plans, because I now plan on going to graduate school to pursue neuroscience research. I never would have thought that this was a possibility or something that I was even interested in before working in Dr. Skogsberg’s lab. This is a great opportunity that Centre provides to so many students. I encourage anyone who loves what they study to consider doing research in their field”
Senior math and biology major Courtney McKernan has participated in research several times throughout her Centre career and they have together been a positive experience for her.
“Dr. Asmus asked me if I’d be interested in doing research over the summer with him, and after I talked to my parents about it, I accepted the position,” McKernan said. “About two years ago, I studied a group of interneurons in the human cerebral cortex. The number of these neurons have decreased in some neurological disorders. We were trying to figure out what their function is to understand their direct role in those diseases.”
In most cases, if the experimental tests are not taught in a course lecture, the professors will end up teaching students how to perform them in order to carry out the research project. McKernan’s experience in the lab is no exception.
“Dr. Asmus taught me how to do amino-histochemistry and amino-fluorescence. We would stain the samples and fluorescently tag the proteins of interest so we could see them under the microscope and determine which proteins are expressed,” she said. “The aminohistochemistry and aminoflourescence is covered in BMB 210. We actually did an experiment with it in lab and in cell biology we cover it again.”
Her college research has also prepared McKernan for applying to other university programs.
“After doing research at Centre, I went on to do research over the summer at the University of Cincinnati and Vanderbilt University. I think my experience at Centre made me a more competitive applicant to other institutions,” McKernan said. “I also think it gave me a preparation for what a life involved in research would be like.”
Conducting research is undoubtedly an important part of an application to graduate school research programs. However, even if students have no interest in a research career, they can still benefit from taking part in research at Centre.
“Research experience looks good on your resume because it conveys that a student can work autonomously,” Dr. Cusato said. “Research can foster tenacity as well as critical and analytical thinking in a student.”