Harding University Neuroscience Laboratory


Dr. David Donley, principal investigator and lab director

Current Students

  • Sydney Reynolds, junior biochemistry and molecular biology major
  • Bre Bishop, senior molecular and cellular biology major
  • Elizabeth Morgan, sophomore biology major
  • Tayler Appleton, sophomore biochemistry and molecular biology major
  • Alyssa Scott, senior biochemistry and molecular biology major
  • Thomas Williams, junior biochemistry and molecular biology major

Introduction

The goal of the lab is to empower students to develop as independent scientists. All projects are designed for students to take ownership, experiencing both the highs and lows of the discovery process. In this way, projects contribute to scientific progress by providing data and training the next generation of scientists.

To accomplish this goal, we study how the immune system of the brain responds to disease. Microglial cells are the primary immune cells of the brain. Scientists know that microglial dysfunction is often a feature of neurological disease, but we still don’t fully understand why this happens or how microglia are contributing to the disease process. As a result, students in the lab perform experiments on how microglia respond when presented with disease signals. Our goal is to understand the basic processes that occur in microglial cells to better understand conditions like Alzheimer’s disease. Hopefully, our findings will help uncover ways to treat neurological diseases.

Students start research in the lab as early as the second semester of their freshman years, and many continue until graduation. In the last four years, students have represented a variety of majors and departments including biology, chemistry, cognitive neuroscience, medical humanities and math. A diversity of ages, majors, backgrounds, and life experience enriches the lab culture and encourages students to think broadly about the answer to this question: “Who is a scientist?”

Materials and Methodology

Equipment/Techniques

  • Cell culture
  • Flow cytometry
  • Metabolic measurements
  • Genetic analysis and sequencing

Philosophy

The goal of research at the undergraduate level is to empower students to be curious and creative and to engage in the process of science from conception to completion. To accomplish this, each student is given the opportunity to take ownership of a specific project where he or she is responsible for contributing to the design of experiments, processing samples and collecting data, analyzing data, and communicating the results. Students have the opportunity to collect sufficient data to present at a scientific conference within their first year of starting in research. Some projects are continuations of prior students’ work, but students are also encouraged to bring their own ideas. About half of the conference presentations students have given have been projects they developed.

Results

The “real world” impact of this work is on the horizon, and we are moving that direction as fast as we can. However, the students are the real legacy of the lab. Even if we never have a highly cited publication or some other “real world” impact, the opportunity to mentor students is part of my mission as a Harding faculty member. While we have several publications in the pipeline, the long-term impact of these research projects is defined by students and the lasting impact that these experiences will have on their careers and their lives.

Lab Alumni

  • Alicen Wilcox (’22) is pursuing a doctorate at University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences.
  • Savannah Ewing (’22) is pursuing a Doctor of Nursing Practice.
  • Landon Genry (’20) is pursuing a doctorate at University of Rhode Island
  • Nathan Brackins (’20) is a laboratory technician at Tufts University in Boston, Massachusetts. 
  • Allison Harmsworth (’19) is pursuing a Doctor of Medicine at University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. 
  • Claire Keisling (’20) is pursuing a Doctor of Medicine at University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences.
  • Elly John (’22) is a laboratory technician at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee.
  • Claire Burton (’22) is a laboratory and clinical technician.
  • Mariel Vargas (’22) is a management consultant at McKinsey & Company in San Jose, Costa Rica.

Research Projects

  • Microglial responses to TDP-43: implications for Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis
  • How free radicals shape the microglial response to Alzheimer’s disease
  • Recovery of microglial cells after ethanol exposure
  • How iron impacts the microglial response to amyloid-beta: implications for Alzheimer’s disease
  • Impact of the anti-epileptic drug Levetiracetam on microglial responses

Awards

  • Alicen Wilcox received the Undergraduate Research Award from Arkansas Academy of Sciences in 2019.
  • Alicen Wilcox and Claire Burton were invited to present oral platform presentations at the Arkansas INBRE conference in 2019 and 2021.
  • Alicen Wilcox was Invited to present an oral platform presentation at the Southeast Regional IDeA Conference in 2021.
  • Tayler Appleton was invited to present an oral platform presentation at the Arkansas Undergraduate Summer Research Symposium in 2022.
  • Landon Genry received recognition for an Outstanding Poster presentation at the Arkansas INBRE conference in 2019.
  • Elly John received recognition for an Outstanding Poster presentation by the Arkansas Academy of Sciences in 2022.
  • Alyssa Scott and Sydney Renolds received recognition for Outstanding Poster presentations at the Arkansas Undergraduate Summer Research Symposium in 2022.

Conclusion

Thomas Kuhn opens his book “Structure of Scientific Revolutions” by stating that if students only learn science from a textbook, that is tantamount to learning about a national culture from a tourist brochure. Research experience immerses students in the culture of science so they can contribute to its vibrancy. Students do not have to wonder what it is like to be a scientist because they are unquestionably scientists. These experiences shape how students view their coursework and how they approach their future careers. The research lab is a place where the mission of Harding is lived out. Students meaningfully engage with each other and with faculty. 

In addition, the grant funding that supports this lab contributes to the entire Harding community. The Biology Department now houses a state-of-the-art metabolic analyzer, high quality phase contrast microscope and other scientific equipment that would not have been available within the scope of the normal departmental operating budget. Grant funding is difficult and highly competitive, but there is a great return on investment.

References

Funding

  • National Institutes of Health and Arkansas IDeA Network of Biomedical Research Excellence
  • Cell Biology Education Consortium
  • Margaret V. Plummer Fund
  • Arkansas Academy of Sciences

Acknowledgements 

Special thanks to the Harding University College of Sciences and Department of Biology for supporting student research.

Categories: Around Campus.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *