From Understanding Alzheimer's to Whale Songs, Undergrads Pursue Exciting Research

By Brian Peters

Release Date: November 23, 2010

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Junior Jessica Page (right) is working with Gabriela Popescu to determine how the mutation of amino acids within certain receptors can influence the occurance of diseases such as Parkinson's.

Sophomore Gary Iacobucci is researching the causes of neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's with faculty mentor Shermali Gunawardena.

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Motivated University at Buffalo students are using their brains to study the brains of others: from collecting whale songs in Puerto Rico as a way to map the brain of one of the world's largest animals, to researching the effects of drugs like methamphetamine, to exploring the cause and prevention of degenerative brain diseases such as Alzheimer's.

Their studies are part of an ongoing effort by UB's Center for Undergraduate Research and Creative Activities to increase research opportunities for undergraduate students. The center each year awards more than 40 research grants of up to $500 to students who conduct research with faculty mentors.

David Lloyd, a native of Hamburg, and a senior UB honors student, traveled to Puerto Rico to study humpback whale song, the pattern of predictable and repetitious sounds produced by whales that enables them to communicate with each other.

Working with the lab of UB psychology professor Eduardo Mercado, PhD, Lloyd wrote a computer program that created a model of how a whale's brain processes the song. He hopes it will produce a better understanding of why whales sing and the physical aspects of the song. Many of the computer programs Lloyd uses in this lab run on the supercomputer in UB's Center for Computational Research.

Lloyd also works with professor Jerry Richards from the UB Research Institute on Addictions, completing an undergraduate thesis on the reinforcing properties of methamphetamine, examining why the drug is addictive and how it influences behavior.

Majoring in psychology, computer science and biology, Lloyd has dealt with aspects of neuroscience in both of the labs he has worked in, and plans to overlap the techniques used in them in his future career.

Jessica Page, a junior from Lancaster who was accepted into the UB biochemistry program last spring, jumped immediately at the opportunity to start research. She works in a lab with Gabriela Popescu, PhD, an assistant professor in UB's biochemistry department, researching tiny proteins in the brain called NMDA receptors.

"These receptors are known to be prime factors in acute and chronic neurodegenerative conditions that impair learning and memory," says Page, whose work in Popescu's lab is funded by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.

Page is helping Popescu investigate how the mutation of amino acids within the NMDA receptors can influence the occurrence of diseases such as Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, schizophrenia and stroke."Trying to understand the function of the brain at a molecular level is fascinating to me," says Page, who was awarded a $500 grant from UB to perform the research.

Gary Iacobucci, a UB sophomore majoring in biological sciences and psychology, is also researching the causes of neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's with faculty mentor Shermali Gunawardena, PhD, assistant professor of biological sciences. The death of massive amounts of nerve cells in the brain is the cause of many neurodegenerative diseases, so Iacobucci is investigating possible causes of cell death.

"I've always had the philosophy that if there is one thing in the world that should not be a 'black box' it is your own body," says Iacobucci. He says he enjoys his research because he knows it could possibly prevent the severe memory loss and dementia associated with Alzheimer's.

"Thoughts and memories are the only thing one can truly call uniquely their own. They are the records of our lives by which we can define ourselves. Robbing someone of that robs them of their very identity," he says.

The studies of Lloyd, Page and Iacobucci are just three examples of the more than 40 partially funded undergraduate research projects underway each year through UB's Center for Undergraduate Research Creative Activities, says Timothy A. Tryjankowski, director of the center.

"The center helps faculty/research mentors and enthusiastic students to connect; students choose to come to UB to partake in the university's culture of research," Tryjankowski says. "While we fund about 40 student research projects each year, we also connect hundreds of students and research/faculty mentors each semester. They connect on exciting 'outside the classroom' projects, where the skills learned and the connections made are priceless.

"UB faculty members are wonderful mentors to our undergraduates, making them meaningful partners in their research and creative projects."

The center was established in 2007 by UB Provost Satish K. Tripathi to assist undergraduate students in finding challenging research opportunities that match their academic interests and career goals. Since then, the center has awarded grants totaling more than $47,000 to more than 120 undergraduate research projects.

For more information about UB's Center for Undergraduate Research Creative Activities, go to