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Sarah Michaels

What advice do you have for undergraduates who are just starting out in research?

Research takes a lot of time, work, and persistence. In order to completely understand the project you are working on, keep reading literature over and over until you fully understand it. Research does not always work out the way you would like, and more than likely you will face obstacles. To overcome this, be persistent because the results pay off in the end!

When you were 10 years old, what did you want to be when you grew up?

When I was 10, I wanted to be a dentist, lawyer or a dolphin trainer.

What are your current plans/career goals beyond the undergraduate?

After graduating, my current plans are to attend dental school to become a dentist.

When did you get involved in undergraduate research?

I was in contact with my PI (principal investigator/research adviser) the spring of my sophomore year and I began working in the lab Fall of my Junior year.

How long have you been involved in undergraduate research?

I have been involved in undergraduate research just over a year now. This past summer, I participated in the SURE program here at WVU. For 8 weeks, I worked in Dr. Dacks’ research lab as an undergraduate researcher. I worked on the same project that I am currently working on.

Why did you choose get involved in undergraduate research?

My love for biology grew after taking Biology 219, cellular and molecular biology, my sophomore year. I enjoyed the lab and knew that I wanted to gain more lab experience to expand my knowledge of biology beyond the classroom. I thought undergraduate research would be a great opportunity to implement my understanding of biology and was an experience that I could not pass up.

How did you find/connect with your first faculty research adviser?

After choosing to get involved in undergraduate research, I began looking for professors I would like to work with. I searched the biology department faculty page and came across Dr. Dacks. Even though I knew very little about neuroscience, his work was very impressive and I wanted to expand my knowledge in this field of biology. I contacted him through email stating that I was interested in his research, and we met up to discuss the responsibilities and commitment involved.

What is your current research?

The nervous system modifies behavior based on the physiological state of an animal. For example if someone has not eaten all day, he or she is more likely to eat day-old fries than someone who just ate. There are a small number of neurons that release signaling molecules, called neuromodulators, throughout the brain that adjust behavior. We know the effect neuromodulators, such as serotonin, have on single neurons, but little is known how activated neurons alter behavior. My research focuses on how the release of serotonin in olfactory centers of fruit fly brains affect odor-guided behavior. To answer this question, I suppressed the activity of the neurons that release serotonin in the olfactory system and measured fruit fly attraction to food odors in trap assays. I found that lower levels of serotonin decrease flies’ attraction to low concentrations of odor, suggesting that serotonin modulates the behavioral sensitivity to food odors.

What skills have you learned by doing research that you would not have learned otherwise (i.e., from lecture alone)?

One thing I have learned is how to critically read primary literature. While some classes require you to critique primary literature, I have learned how to apply what I have read to my specific research. Through my experience so far, I feel that I have learned how to create hypotheses and how to effectively design experiments to test these hypotheses. Additionally, I have learned how to analyze, interpret and evaluate the results I have gathered. Another huge thing I have learned is the amount of time and effort it takes to collect data and publish primary literature. Before my involvement in research, I did not realize the amount of work that it takes for just one paper. My appreciation for research continues to grow as I learn more and more about the process. As far as lab work goes, I have gained basic laboratory skills needed for an invertebrate neuroscience lab. These skills include general fly husbandry/pushing, setting up fly crosses, and preparing chemical solutions.