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Undergraduates Investigate the Neurobiology of Mental Illness in The Schulz Lab

Gulsah Onar of Knoxville, John Lawrence III of Chattanooga, and Carinne Cheney of Oak Ridge are three of the forty-nine undergraduates that participated in the Summer Undergraduate Research Internship Program through the Office of Undergraduate Research at The University of Tennessee, Knoxville this summer. All three students worked in The Schulz Lab, led by Dr. Kalynn Schulz. The Schulz Lab focuses on the neurobiology of mental illness.

Each student is researching different behavioral responses in rat brains and came to the lab with unique motivations.

Onar, a Psychology major, became motivated to study how psychology impacts the development of a disease and its subsequent treatment after her mother passed away from cancer nine years ago. She is examining the effects of gonadal steroid hormones on Perineuronal Net (PNN) development in the Medial Amygdala, which involved helping graduate assistants during gonadectomy and hormone treatment processes, slicing brain tissues, and imaging those tissues under a fluorescence microscope.

Onar said, “When we complete the experiment, it will be important for explaining the possible reasons for mental health disorders that are adolescent onset….I think knowing the fact that my contributions will be used in someone else’s research is the most rewarding part.”

Lawrence is a Neuroscience major and has always been interested in how events that happened before birth and during childhood can cause humans to develop in different ways. He is investigating whether dietary choline mitigates the effects of prenatal stress on anxiety-related behavior via alterations in nicotinic acetylcholine receptor levels in the Basolateral and Central Amygdala.

Lawrence said, “I knew that the Amygdala plays a big factor in fear association and long term anxiety, so I chose to focus on this region.”

He emphasized that his research mentors in The Schulz Lab have helped him to become self-motivated while doing tedious work, but also make the work fun. Lawrence hopes to continue doing research as a graduate student in the field of Epidemiology.

As a Pre-med Microbiology student, Cheney was looking for more ways to further her education, while also doing something she enjoyed. She is specifically studying the effects of adolescent stress on Perineuronal Nets (PNNs) in the Prefrontal Cortex of rat brains. In addition to learning how to prepare animals for surgery and slice and stain brain samples, she emphasized that this experience has taught her practical skills, like how to write grants and make an effective research poster for when she has to present her research to the public.

Cheney said, “The most rewarding part is when you first do something correctly all on your own…Just seeing physical progress is enough to make it all worth it!”

All three students were funded by the Summer Undergraduate Research Internship Program through the Office of Undergraduate Research. All current full-time undergraduates are eligible to apply. For more information about the program and how to submit an application, visit our website.