The School of Neuroscience at Virginia Tech recently finished its inaugural Summer Research Program, providing 18 Virginia Tech undergraduate students with 10 weeks of "hands-on, minds-on" research experience with faculty.

Students spent the summer working on research projects in neuroscience laboratories on Virginia Tech’s Blacksburg campus and at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute in Roanoke. The program culminated with a poster presentation on Aug. 9 where students presented their research findings, giving them the opportunity to obtain valuable feedback from faculty and other researchers at Virginia Tech. 

Students were supported by fellowship endowments provided by Washington, D.C.-based law firm EngelNovitt PLLC and the estate of James and Lillian Gay. EngelNovitt is led by John Engel, a longtime supporter of the Virginia Tech College of Science, which the School of Neuroscience is a part of, and a member of the college’s Roundtable Advisory Board. James Gay was a Virginia Tech alumnus, earning a bachelor’s degree in biology in 1935. He died in 2015 and was posthumously inducted into the college’s Hall of Distinction in 2016. Support money also came from the School of Neuroscience Undergraduate Fellowship fund.

“The goal was to gain experience by independently taking on experiments, experiencing first-hand how research can have its ups and downs,” said Harald Sontheimer, the I.D. Wilson Chair and professor of neuroscience, executive director of the School of Neuroscience, and director of the Center for Glial Biology in Health, Disease, and Cancer, located in Roanoke.

Sontheimer with student Matthew Hyland

Sontheimer with student Matthew Hyland
Virginia Tech School of Neuroscience junior Matthew Hyland (right) of Mechanicsville, Virginia, speaks with Harald Sontheimer, executive director of the school and the I.D. Wilson Chair and professor of neuroscience in the College of Science.

“EngelNovitt has maintained a longstanding commitment to actively supporting the College of Science, its pioneering research and novel degree programs that benefit Virginia Tech, its students, and the research community more broadly,” said John Engel, manager of EngelNovitt. “As soon as the School of Neuroscience and its neuroscience degree programs were announced, we wanted to broaden that support to include the EngelNovitt Undergraduate Research Fellowship to enable undergraduates to benefit even more directly in the advancement of the school’s mission by actively participating in its cutting-edge research in the lab.”

Particpating students included:

Noah Feld, of Woodbridge, Virginia, and a senior in neuroscience who worked in Sontheimer’s lab with Susan Campbell, a research assistant professor at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute, said he enjoyed the experience of hands-on research. “Having the privilege to be constantly immersed in an environment where I was challenged, but also able to learn, gave me a feeling of excitement, as though a new discovery was just around the corner,” Feld said.

Amanda Patterson, of Mount Airy, Maryland, and a senior in neuroscience, worked in the laboratory of Georgia Hodes, an assistant professor of neuroscience. There, Patterson carried out experiments to understand sex differences involved in stress susceptibility and resilience. The focus of this lab was to determine connections between the immune system and the peripheral nervous system“This fellowship gave me first-hand experience with techniques I didn’t even know existed until I was admitted in this program,” she said. 

Abbie Weit in neuroscience lab

Abbie Weit in neuroscience lab
Abbie Weit, a major in experimental neuroscience, carries out testing in a neuroscience laboratory this past summer.

Madison O’Donnell, of Forest, Virginia, and a senior in neuroscience, worked in the laboratory of Elizabeth Gilbert, an assistant professor in the Department of Animal and Poultry Sciences, part of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, and an affiliated faculty member of neuroscience. O’Donnell contributed to eight experiments on neural control of food intake in chickens and quail, with four experiments being of her own design.

“Receiving the fellowship this summer was the greatest success of my undergraduate career and the best experience Virginia Tech has given me,” she said. “Being able to spend 40-plus hours in the lab every week gave me the opportunity to be taught many lab techniques by my mentors and gain experiences that I would not have gotten anywhere else.”

O’Donnell expects her summer work to result in two publications, and she plans on pursuing a doctoral degree in cellular and molecular neuroscience at the University of Southern California after she graduates in 2018.

Sontheimer said, “We hope to be able to continue this successful program in future summers, providing generations of students a chance to sample the excitement that comes with discovery, which defines the future career path of many of our students.”

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