Associate Professor of Psychology Michael Jarvinen was recently awarded a three-year, $266,003 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF), an independent federal agency that supports fundamental research and education across all fields of science and engineering. The grant, which is part of the NSF's Research in Undergraduate Institutions (RUI) program, will support Jarvinen's research project, "Effects of vision loss on astrocyte maturation and oligodendrocyte myelination via BDNF-associated mechanisms in the visual cortex," and allow three Emmanuel undergraduates to participate in the research study.
The purpose of the project is to determine the role of two molecules that are produced by two distinct populations of non-neurons called astrocytes and oligodendrocytes that reside in the vision processing area of the brain, Jarvinen said. He hypothesizes that these molecules regulate the development of the circuits that make vision possible. The expression patterns of the regulatory molecules will be determined at different stages of development in normal mice and in mice that show a progressive loss of vision during postnatal development. The expectation is that there will be reduced expression of the molecules in the sightless mice, which, in turn, will prevent functional vision circuits from developing. The work has potential to provide a fresh perspective on how vision circuits are formed and organized during development. Undergraduates involved in the project will receive training in molecular and cellular techniques and in modern methods of cell imaging. High-resolution images of fluorescent-labeled cells will be archived in an image data bank for use in teaching neuroscience classes for undergraduates and workshops for local high school science students.
"My research is on brain plasticity, particularly on how specific populations of cells work together, and differently, to modify the brain," Jarvinen said. "The findings from this grant could have significant relevance to our understanding of brain function because these cell populations influence everything from hormone release to sensory perception."
Jarvinen and his team (which also includes two co-investigators, Clinton Mathias, Ph.D. of Western New England University, and Joseph Sucic, Ph.D. of the University of Michigan-Flint) have already made good progress on the project, building on his well-established undergraduate research program with resources made available by NSF funding.
"In order to conduct cutting-edge research, you have to have access to certain resources, such as highly motivated and creative faculty and students, access to specialized equipment and finances," he said. "This NSF grant ensures that we will have these resources for the next several years."
For a portion of the funded research, the research team will have access to core facilities at Harvard that will help separate and analyze specific populations of cells and observe their interactions at very high magnification using special microscopy. The team also has an extensive network of faculty collaborators to evaluate specific aspects of these cells.
"I feel confident that we will discover new information that significantly advances our understanding of the brain," he said. "Beyond the basic science, there is a strong possibility that we may also benefit those who are afflicted with neurodegenerative diseases."
Faculty-student collaborations are a hallmark of an Emmanuel liberal arts and sciences education - and one that Jarvinen believes is important to foster the next generation of researchers and scientists. He was recently invited to be a module leader for an October 2015 workshop to advance the NSF BRAIN (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) Initiative and to help prepare a scientifically literate workforce.
"I believe one way to do this is by providing high-quality research experiences that are extremely important for the growth and success of undergraduate students," he said. "At Emmanuel, undergraduate students have been at the heart of what I've been able to do. They are very motivated, and I love recruiting first- or second-year students to involve them in my research. This gives them the luxury of time to become trained in the complex field of neuroscience and become part of an integrated research community in my lab."
The approach continues to be successful, he said, with students helping to establish new techniques as well as optimize protocols that have been a mainstay in his lab. While the "plug-and-chug" of the research process builds character and tenacity, students also benefit from the opportunity to see things that no one else has seen before and from co-authorships on papers, which gives them the competitive edge for graduate and medical school acceptance or their job searches.