While undergraduates at Cornell have unusual access to research opportunities, not many get to lead a research team. But thanks to a Hunter R. Rawlings III Cornell Presidential Research Scholarship, Ben Wie '13 spent the past summer supervising an animal behavior research team in Professor Thomas Cleland's neuropsychology lab.
Cleland's lab uses the sense of smell to explore how learning, memory, expectation and similar processes affect sensory input, and how these transformations in turn influence behavior and subsequent learning. Wie's team looked at learning and memory in mice.
They began by teaching mice to associate a certain odor with a reward, then measured the mice's learning by testing their ability to discriminate that odor from similar pleasant scents. Typically a higher reward resulted in the mice learning better, and a lower reward resulted in less effective learning, says Wie, a biology and society major.
The group established that changing the level of reward given changed the amount of learning in a predictable way: Switching from a low level of reward to a high level increased an individual mouse's learning, and switching from high to low decreased its learning.
Then Wie's team looked at whether a particular brain chemical would erase the effects of changing the reward on the mice's learning. "We think we've discovered a chemical in the brain that destroys the effect," Wie said enthusiastically. "It seems to interfere with the mice brains laying down learning pathways."
He added, "Although our experiment this summer didn't show exactly the results we were expecting, like many projects, we did see an interesting phenomenon that might be a subject for a new study."
Much of what Wie and his fellow researchers in Cleland's lab are discovering is transferrable to humans, he said. "Mice are used because they're a very good model for the human brain. Figuring out the mechanism through which they learn and remember things is key to mapping out the actual structure of the brain, which is still widely unknown. And nobody really knows how memory is stored. Chipping away at that is really fun."
Wie sees research as a kind of service. "I feel as a student and growing up we do so much taking; everyone helps us, and we're being supported by our parents," he explained. "Research is one of those ways we can contribute to society."
Having worked in labs since high school, the Buffalo, N.Y., native says he was very conscious of his team's group dynamic and worked hard to maintain balance between working together as a team and acting as group leader.
"There was a whole new level of accountability for me in terms of catching all the details and directing a day's work," he said, "but at the end of the day we were all working together on a project we wanted to turn out well." He noted that communication flowed smoothly among the team, which consisted of Paul Lang '14 and Zhongming Chen '14, with Michelle Tong, a graduate student in the field of neurobiology, serving as Wie's consultant.
Being responsible drove home to Wie the importance of making sure every last detail is right. Wie intends to go to medical school and said: "I imagine as a doctor one of the biggest responsibilities is rigorously following set protocol. If even one little thing is missing, it could mean the difference between life and death. This summer I saw firsthand how much energy it really takes to make sure everything happens smoothly."
Linda B. Glaser is staff writer for the College of Arts and Sciences.