Making Memories Into Futures

Students Conduct Cutting-Edge Research in Neuroscience Lab

Three students who have proved the complex process of memory formation in Dr. Edwards’ lab have not just studied memories—they have made their own. “I would bet there is no other institution in the world that gives undergraduates as significant a research experience as they get here at BYU because of our emphasis on undergraduate education,” says Dr. Jeff Edwards, Professor of Physiology and Developmental Biology and Neuroscience. The advanced research opportunities enjoyed by two recent graduates, Curtis Walther and Jacob Blickenstaff, and one soon-to-be graduate, Michael McNeil, as students in the College of Life Sciences exemplify his remark. “Given this opportunity,” says Edwards, “many undergraduates do publishable-quality research. Having a publication or an award from a presentation goes a long way to being accepted into graduate schools.”

All three students confirm Edwards’ assessment of the benefits of BYU’s commitment to mentored research opportunities for undergraduates. Walther, who double-majored in neuroscience and exercise science, is already a medical student at the University of Washington. He says, “I am continually amazed by how well BYU prepared me for the rigors of medical school.” Blickenstaff, who completed a degree in physiology and developmental biology in August, is currently applying to medical school. When McNeil, also a PDBio major, graduates next April, he will hone medical skills that he first exercised as a ten-year old when he turned a scalpel from a children’s biology kit onto his little brother’s stuffed animals.

In Dr. Edwards’ lab, Walther, Blickenstaff, and McNeil conducted in-depth research on the role of certain proteins in the processes of learning and remembering new information. “Every time a memory is formed,” Walther explains, “physical changes occur in the brain, especially in an area called the hippocampus. In our lab, we simulate the formation of memories in rat brains and are able to observe this ‘plasticity’ (as the changes are called) to provide a better understanding of the pathways and mechanisms by which all this happens.” Walther and Blickenstaff focused their attention particularly on the TRPV1 receptor, a protein nicknamed the “hot-pepper receptor” because, activated by a certain chemical compound, it creates the burning sensation that accompanies a bite into a chili pepper. For their success in clarifying the function of this receptor, Walther and Blickenstaff, along
Mike McNeil (r) with Dr. Jeff Edwards
with McNeil (who studies related molecular processes involved in the formation of memory) were rewarded with opportunities to present their research at a prestigious and widely attended neuroscience conference in Chicago and at poster contests at BYU, where their posters have repeatedly received highest honors.
"There is no attitude of competition - we all work together to help one another succeed."
Such experiences and accolades are giving these students a head start as they enter the next stages of their education. Challenging classes prepared them, according to Blickenstaff, “to hit the books in medical school,” and mentored research opportunities have set them apart as applicants. Blickenstaff and Walther coauthored an article with Edwards and another researcher to be published in an upcoming issue of the peer-reviewed journal Hippocampus. Edwards calls this an “extremely beneficial opportunity to think and evaluate their own and others’ research critically, which can enhance their education and academic abilities.” He encourages all students in his lab to similarly engage with their peers’ work. In these collaborative interactions, McNeil says, “there is no attitude of competition—we all work together to help one another succeed.” As the students trained in Dr. Edwards’ lab have realized, these successes aren’t just the makings of fond memories; they’re the foundation of academic, professional, and personal achievement.

by Mary Eyring