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Neuroscience, Psychology departments researching adolescent nicotine exposure


GREENVILLE, Pa.—Assistant Professor of Psychology Laura Pickens, Ph.D. ’06 and Associate Professor of Neuroscience Greg Butcher, Ph.D., in a collaborative research endeavor, are investigating “The Cognitive, Behavioral, and Neural Consequences of Adolescent Nicotine Exposure in Adult Long-Evans Rats” as a part of the Greenville Neuromodulation Center Faculty/Student Research Institute.

Pickens and Butcher are working with undergraduate student researchers Korinna Sherman ’17 and Evan Youker ’18. Sherman, of Poland, Ohio, is a biochemistry major and 2014 graduate of Poland Seminary High School. Youker, of West Lafayette, Ohio, is a neuroscience major and 2015 graduate of Ridgewood High School. They will learn techniques in animal care and handling, drug and behavioral testing, histology, microscopy, and data analysis.

“This opportunity gives our student researchers marketable skills that will provide them with a significant advantage when they apply to medical or graduate school,” Butcher said.

Important to this research is the notion that “adolescence is a critical period of development, and exposure to nicotine during that time may cause developmental impairments that remain into adulthood and are reflected in an organism’s behavior, cognition, or even neural activity,” Pickens said.

The collaboration between faculty members in the Psychology and Neuroscience departments for this project has resulted in several research questions. First, under the supervision of Pickens, the undergraduate student researchers will be investigating whether adolescent nicotine exposure leads to any cognitive impairments in adulthood by testing for deficits of spatial learning and memory ability in the animals. Following this, Butcher will supervise the student researchers in an investigation of the neural consequences of adolescent nicotine exposure in the hippocampus—an important structure of the brain involved in learning and memory.

This collaboration is important for several reasons. First, “it may broaden our understanding, in behavioral and neural terms, of adult learning and memory impairments following exposure to nicotine during adolescence,” Pickens said. Moreover, “the project will generate data that can be used in several academic courses taught in the Neuroscience and Psychology departments to provide our students with a legitimate exposure to data collection and may inspire some to continue the work in future years.” Butcher said.  Pickens and Butcher anticipate continuing data analysis into the 2016-2017 academic year.

Pickens received her master’s degree in 2009 and doctorate in 2012 from Kent State University. She began teaching at Thiel College in 2011. Butcher received his doctorate in 2006 from The Ohio State University. He began teaching at Thiel in 2014. Both serve as chair of their departments.

About the GNC Faculty/Student Research Institute

In 2015, Thiel College alumni Fred Haer ’65 and his wife, Jill (Shackett) ’66, pledged more than $400,000 to fund the institute from 2015-2017. It is open to all Thiel College faculty members and focuses on connecting science and the liberal arts. In its second year, six other research projects are part of the institute.

About Thiel College

Thiel College is an independent college founded in the Lutheran tradition. Located in Greenville, Pa., the College offers 60 majors and minors, 24 varsity sports, and an 11:1 student-faculty ratio. The College is also home to a Master of Science in speech-language pathology, a Leadership Master of Business Administration and a Management Master of Business Administration. Both master’s degree programs offer innovative and accelerated five-year paths which allow students to earn a bachelor’s and master’s degree in five years. The speech-language pathology program also has an accelerated 15-month graduate-level program. The M.B.A. program also has a 12-month post-graduate program. A dedicated faculty paired with dynamic research and internship opportunities produce numerous graduate school and job placements. Coeducational from its beginnings, the College remains committed to combining tradition with innovation.

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