Undergrads in Hands-on Research, Working in Teams

Professor Rebecca (Becky) Kohn has studied how the nervous system works for 14 years. “A main question we are asking is how an active nervous system protects itself from damage,” said Kohn. Some studies have shown if a nervous system is active, it is then protected from insults, such as oxidative stress.

Students work on teams to study how the nervous system of the worm, Caenorhabditis elegans, reacts to stress. Among the questions their research addresses; how does oxidative stress cause C.elegans to develop more slowly? How does a strain of hyperactive worm react differently? And the third group studies cells in the nervous system itself, counting 26 labeled neurons and recording whether they degrade.

Kohn has received two NSF grants. She was awarded an NSF Career grant, funded for five years and an NSF RUI grant funded for three years.

“It’s unusual at all for undergraduates to be involved at this level of research at large universities,” said Kohn. “There might be a smaller number. But even at small liberal arts colleges they wouldn’t have these opportunities as freshman. My students are very dedicated and capable of working independently; some have truly excelled working at the level of a graduate student. With biology you can’t always plan your time. The unpredictable nature of research means you have to plan your life, your exams or your papers, around the research.”

Professor Kohn accompanied one of her students to the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience conference in Chicago. Kohn was a coauthor on a scientific education poster titled, “Using IMPULSE in an undergraduate course: A case study.” The poster is presented by the journal, Impulse, and it describes a project Kohn pursued with her Ursinus Molecular Neurobiology students, in which they completed research projects for the course and submitted their findings to a neuroscience journal.