Meet Autumn Tucker, a junior Neuroscience major and minors in French and Computer Science. She works in Dr. Fulton Crews’ laboratory in the Bowles Center for Alcohol Studies, under the mentorship of Dr. Leon G. Coleman. The Crews Lab is working to learn how alcohol damages the cortical connections necessary for good sensations associated with good citizenship and recovery from alcoholism.
Tell us about your research. My lab generally studies neuropharmacology and neuroimmunology relating to alcohol use but we are currently focused on the effects of binge drinking on the neuropathology of Alzheimer’s Disease, as far as its progression and severity, to potentially explore drug treatment options for stopping or reversing these effects down the line. We primarily use animal models to study neurological development through different conditions of the two disorders through various imaging, immunological, and genetic analysis techniques.
What do you like most about your work? Getting to work closely with researchers, graduate students, postdocs, physicians, other lab faculty, and fellow undergraduate students who are also working in my area of study is one of the highlights of my experience. The research easily gives us a common interest and, from there, we are able to learn from each other’s perspectives to develop as scholars. All of the people I work with regularly come with their own sets of knowledge and diverse backgrounds, and working together to pool our individual ideas about various topics in neuroscience and alcohol studies is always exciting to see. I regularly get to talk to people at various stages in their careers with variable levels of experience in a wide variety of research topics and I’ve been able to gain a lot of invaluable, personal insight about their experiences. I also really enjoy getting to talk to people about what they’re passionate about in neuroscience and more generally in research, and sharing my passion with them. Beyond the actual research process, my lab has been a great place for me to join a community of researchers with similar interests who are eager to exchange ideas and support each other to contribute to progress in medical research.
Has this experience changed your ideas about what research is and how it’s done? This experience showed me that research is more dynamic and flexible than I previously imagined it to be. Learning about the basic scientific process but primarily only seeing the culmination of those journeys made me think that research was more straightforward and rigid than it is in reality. In my lab, we often switch directions in our focus as we gather more data and actively analyze our results to reassess our next steps. Sometimes our hypotheses are wrong and we have to re-evaluate our other ideas and assumptions to move forward in the process. A lot of these twists and redirections in research are not obvious in the papers and conclusions that come out of them, which can make the process seem less ambiguous and genuinely exploratory than it is. Overall, this experience has changed my ideas about how effective research is conducted and shown me that it is more compelling and adaptable than it sometimes looks on the outside.
What is the most valuable lesson you’ve learned from this experience? Learning how to accept unexpected results and use them to my benefit rather than viewing them as a loss or failure has the most valuable lesson for me. Any knowledge gained from the research process, whether it confirms or challenges your pre-existing ideas, is valuable and can be built off to expand your own base of understanding, as well as ideas about how to move forward. It is easy to look at any results that don’t align with your hypothesis and feel stuck or like you’ve messed up but it is important to realize how you can use these alternative ideas to think from a new perspective and reach a conclusion that is just as important as the one you may have originally expected. Research and scientific exploration are adaptive processes and, as a researcher, learning how to adapt to your findings and use them whenever and however you can is essential to growing in any discipline.
How has the COVID-19 pandemic has affected your research? Due to the shutdown, my involvement in the lab was paused for several months and several steps in the overall research were delayed. I was unable to work in-person in my lab from last March to this January and it was tough to stay up-to-date on how it was progressing remotely. Fortunately, I was able to continue reading through articles, studies, and grant proposals throughout this time and meet with my mentor about updates to stay involved in the research. Yet, coming back to the lab in-person after so many months away was a strange transition and there are many hands-on aspects to my research that I’ve had to reacquaint myself with over the past few months. This situation has taught me more about the various forms and adaptations that research can take, as well as how they lend themselves differently to the research process overall.
Our Undergraduate Research Series features spotlights on our Psychology and Neuroscience majors and minors who are conducting undergraduate research with our faculty! We believe strongly that undergraduate experiences are greatly enriched by inquiry and discovery through undergraduate research. Research experiences allow students to better understand literature, determine areas of interest, discover their passion for research, continue on to graduate studies, and to jump start their careers as researchers. If you are an undergraduate who is interested in pursuing research experiences, we offer PSYC and NSCI 395 as an opportunity to work side-by-side with graduate students and faculty members on cutting-edge psychological and neuroscience research. We also recommend you visit the Office for Undergraduate Research to find research opportunities, apply for research funding, and for helpful tools and advice. Research opportunities abound at UNC – find one that works for you!