Tiered Mentoring Overview

The Tiered Mentoring program in the Buchetl College of Arts and Sciences offers undergraduate research and mentoring opportunities. Each of the divisions have different criteria – please review your area of interest:

Current and past projects are listed below. You can use the menu to see all the projects offered by a department or complete the sign-up form to get started.

Analyzing neural responses to vocalizations

Jeffrey Wenstrup, Ph.D., Sharad Shanbhag, Ph.D., and Mahtab Tehrani, Ph.D. (NEOMED)

Research Area
Vocalizations reflect our emotions. As we listen to another’s vocal signals, we respond by assigning them a meaning determined by the vocalization itself, our previous experience, and our own emotional state. This in turn affects the way that we respond to a person’s vocal signals—by our posture, facial gestures, movement, and speech. Our goal is to understand how the brain shapes our responses to these vocal signals.
Brain regions of interest: Our focus is on the amygdala, a brain center that integrates sensory inputs with information about our previous experiences and our internal state. It then assesses the meaning of new sensory information and “decides” on the appropriate behavioral responses. We also study the auditory centers that send information to the amygdala about social vocalizations.

Our models We use bats and mice as models to study these processes. Bats are sound experts that use vocalizations to both communicate and to catch prey and navigate through echolocation. Mice are acoustic generalists that integrate acoustic and other sensory information during social interactions. Both models provide valuable insights into the mechanisms underlying acoustic communication and emotions.

Current Project
We have a large data set of recordings of the neural responses in the amygdala to vocalizations. Analysis of these data uses custom MATLAB programs that we have developed in the lab. We are looking for an undergraduate with programming experience to aid in developing new visualization and analysis code for this data set. The student would preferably have experience programming in MATLAB, but experience in other programming languages (Python, C) is also acceptable. The student would be expected to work with the existing MATLAB code and develop new code in MATLAB. Experience in using git and Github is also desirable.

Click here for more information about Dr. Wenstrup’s lab

‘I’m too freaked out to hear you!’ How early-life stress affects auditory perception and the brain

Dr. Merri Rosen, Kate Hardy, Matthew Sunthimer (NEOMED)

Research Area
It’s well-known that hearing problems in kids may cause later trouble with understanding complex sounds, such as speech in a place with a lot of background noise. But our lab is the first to show that early-life stress (ELS) during development can cause similar problems. Many labs have studied the effects of ELS on the development of brain regions responsible for attention, learning, and related psychopathologies. Our work has found that auditory information is not being encoded properly before it even reaches these higher-level brain regions. This is important, because children who grow up in low-socioeconomic, high stress environments are at risk for later problems with speech perception. Discovering what is going wrong mechanistically will help prevent and remediate these problems.
We’re funded by the National Institutes of Health to study the neural mechanisms that can cause stress-induced deficits in auditory perception. It turns out that ELS may be a particular problem when kids have ear infections that cause intermittent hearing loss – our data show that early hearing loss and stress together are much worse than either one alone! We use an animal model that is well-established in auditory research – the Mongolian gerbil – because gerbils hear well at frequencies that humans use, unlike mice or rats.


Current Project
We are looking for a student to assist in testing gerbils on behavioral tasks to measure their auditory perception and learning abilities, and quantify animal behavior using video analysis

Students will:

  • Receive training in experimental techniques used widely across research fields in biology and neuroscience
  • Learn how to apply critical thinking to big problems in neuroscience
  • Opportunities to attend weekly journal clubs on Auditory Neuroscience in the Hearing Research Group at NEOMED, and related seminars given by neuroscience faculty from around the world

Click here for more information about Dr. Rosen’s lab

Will Mars rovers ever run on rubber tires?

Drs. Jia and Anyszka

Fig. 1
Research Area

Exploration and colonization of Mars ignite the imagination of people around the world. Many successful missions have been launched to the red planet. Each time we manage to transport bigger and more complex machines. The materials that we use on Earth have been adopted for the missions to explore Mars. To continue the advances, we must develop materials tailormade to withstand Martian conditions.

Metal and ceramics can resist radiations and low temperatures on Mars, in contrast to polymeric materials, like rubber.  That’s why Mars rovers currently use aluminum wheels instead of rubber tires widely used on Earth. However, there is a good reason for using rubber to produce tires – its elastic properties, which provide good grip to the road, resist impact damages, and reduce vibration, assuring safety and reliability. Modern rubber tires can support a 400 tons mining truck or an F1 bolide traveling with a speed of 500 km/h. In comparison, the Curiosity rover weights 900 kg, travels with a maximum speed of 180 m/h, and its wheels show significant damages likely due to mechanical impact of rough surfaces after the mission (Fig. 1).

When we think about the future heavy-duty rovers, which would transport the cargo and crew, it’s hard to imagine not using rubber tires.

The aim of this project is to design tailor-made rubber compounds that withstand Martian conditions by using low glass-temperature rubbers – butadiene rubber or a unique butadiene/silicone rubber blend to provide still good elasticity at the low temperatures experienced on Mars.

Current Project
In this project, you will gain experience with…

  • Interdisciplinary work, combining chemical synthesis, rubber technology, and space engineering
  • Chemical modification of rubber molecules
  • Designing rubber formulations
  • Mars environment
  • Hands-on work in chemical and rubber laboratories

Click here for more information about Dr. Jia’s lab

Lights Camera Axolotl: Single Leg Kinematics

[Past Projects]

Dr. Henry Astley and Kaelyn Gamel

No Research experience? Don’t live on campus? Want your own hours?

This project allows students to gain research experience at home and on their own time.

 No experience needed!

Project Details:

In the Astley lab, our primary focus is in the field of biomechanics, where we integrate animal biomechanics and morphological features. This project looks to expose the axolotl single leg kinematics when they are walking underwater. Tiered mentoring students will be digitizing videos of axolotls walking. Students will be exposed to scientific research and to lab settings. Dependent on mentee’s schedule, student can attend laboratory meetings, which consist of Astley lab members reviewing published scientific papers.
Click here for other information about Dr. Astley’s lab.

Decals to prevent bird strikes on building windows

[Past Projects]

Dr. Hunter King, Meron Dibia and Danial Garvin

Good year polymer center, the building where our lab is located, has had disproportionally high bird strike incidents compared to any other building on campus or even the greater Akron area (unpublished data from the Akron Zoo).  This is due to the predominantly glass design of the build that make it invisible to birds. We are hoping to mitigate that fact using low cost methods such artful decals decorations that add to the appeal of the building while protecting the birds. The undergraduate researcher for this project will be responsible for finding cost effective materials, designing the decals and lastly helping to put together a proposal to execute the plan. This is a continuation of a project that has been monitoring the number of dead birds around our building for the last couple of years.
Click her for more information about projects in Dr. King’s lab.

“Good vibrations”: exploring web shape and prey detection in slingshot spiders

[Past Projects]

Dr. Todd Blackledge and Alissa Coonfield

Vibrations are incredibly useful to spiders—it’s through vibrations that spiders are able to detect and locate prey, communicate with each other, and perceive their immediate surroundings. Many spiders rely on the webs they build to transmit this information, and the properties of those webs determine how quickly and efficiently they can detect and respond to different signals.
The slingshot spider (genus Theridiosoma) builds an orb-shaped web which it tightens from the center, transforming it into a conical, energy-loaded snare. When it detects flying prey, the spider launches the structure forward, intercepting any insects in its path. The unique characteristics of this system—the web shape, the active prey capture mechanism, and the spider’s ability to detect prey before the web touches it—make it ideal for studying vibration transmission. In this project, I aim to determine 1) how the three-dimensional shape of Theridiosoma webs may aid in transmitting vibrations and 2) the mechanism through which the spider detects its prey (either through airborne or web-borne vibrations). In this project, you’ll gain experience with…
  • Field- and lab-based research
  • Invertebrate collection and care
  • High-speed videography and vibration-monitoring techniques
  • Mechanical testing and material science
  • Spider biology and behavior
  • Physics of vibration
  • Statistical analysis and data interpretation
  • Presentation in a professional setting and/or publication

Click here for more information about Dr. Blackledge’s research.

Can you hear me now? Detangling brain circuits for hearing and attention

[Past Projects]

Dr. Brett Schofield (NEOMED)

The Schofield Lab uses microscopy to study pathways in the brain, especially pathways important in hearing and attention that use acetylcholine as a neurotransmitter. We inject fluorescent tract tracers into auditory brain areas in mice and guinea pigs, then study pathways using a fluorescent microscope. We also fluorescently label brain cells with immuno-staining, a technique where antibodies are used to recognize proteins in the brain. These techniques allow us to map brain circuits that might explain why hearing your name in a crowded room grabs your attention, or why you can easily sleep through your partner’s snoring but awaken immediately at an unfamiliar noise. The photo below shows cells in the auditory cortex that make descending projections to the brainstem.
GP799 1:7-1 left AC AAVrg in L IC; scale 250 um
Benefits to students:
  • Observe or participate in tracer injection surgeries
  • Participate in cutting of brains on a microtome and immuno-staining of brain sections
  • Learn how to use a fluorescence microscope and fluorescence microscopy software
  • Opportunity to participate in weekly Schofield Lab meetings
  • Access to NEOMED Hearing Research Group seminars and journal clubs
Skills needed:
  • None! We are happy to teach you everything you need to know to work in The Schofield Lab with us. All you need is an eagerness to learn and participate.

To read more about research in the Schofield lab, visit our website at www.schofieldlab.org.

Nutrition and how it impacts behavior and development

[Past Projects]

Dr. Brian Bagatto and Katie Duval

We are working towards understanding how different levels of macronutrients may impact the physiology of zebrafish. More specifically, we want to first see if when presented with foods that have different levels of major macronutrients (carbohydrate, fats, protein), will the fish choose one over the others or show any type of preference. From there, we want to specifically feed some fish one diet while others receive the alternative options and then run tests to understand how those feeding choices impact their behavior, how many eggs females will produce, and potentially the developmental rate of offspring and their cardiovascular development. Zebrafish are a great model organism for this type of research because of the ease of raising them, high fecundity, and the ability to observe the early development of the cardiovascular system, to name a few. Projects are continuously evolving, and potential students would gain valuable experience in animal care, as well as the importance of trouble shooting in science research.
Click here for more information on Dr. Bagatto’s lab.

What are the limits of light energy necessary to support life?

[Past Projects]

Dr. Hazel Barton and Isuru P. Silva Ethige

Background: Understanding the physical and chemical limits of life on Earth is an essential first step to understanding the possibility of extraplanetary life (astrobiology). Life requires energy, and the primary sources are chemical and light energy. Phototrophs harvest light energy between 400-700 nm wavelengths while a few species, such as purple bacteria, can harvest light energy from the lower energy near-infrared region of the spectrum (700-973 nm) using different photosynthetic and photoreactive proteins. Additional research into life that can survive in various light conditions (energy from even lower wavelengths and low intensities) is required to understand the lowest limits of light needed to support life.
Terrestrial caves can be considered potential sites to carry out such research as they naturally demonstrate a range of light energy gradients (both light wavelengths and the amount of light energy per unit area) in their entrances. This leads to the stratification of different microbial communities that are adapted to use the available light sources depending on where they live. Surprisingly, even in the darkest zones of caves, longer wavelengths are available due to the reflection and refraction of light bouncing deeper into the caves. In 2019, we identified cyanobacteria even in the dark zones of caves in New Mexico that can harvest these lower energy near-infrared regions for photosynthesis under extremely low light levels. Thus, we can observe light-harvesting activities of life in caves in the complete dark where a light source is required to see your hand in front of your face.
Our Project: Our project aims to understand the limits of intensity and wavelength of light that can support life, using cave entrances as a novel study site. Samples will be analyzed for microbial community composition of known phototrophic species using 16S rRNA. The presence of genes involved in photosynthetic pigments and photo-reactive protein production will be identified using metagenomics. The expression of pigments will be analyzed using different analytical methods and instruments, including the pigment extractions using organic solvent partitioning and HPLC, ART-FTRI, GC-MS, Raman spectroscopy, and fluorescent absorption and emission data. Culture-based techniques under cave-relevant light conditions will be used to determine whether phototrophy is supported under the conditions found in the cave. Finally, direct cell counts will be carried out in each sample to estimate the relative abundance of available light energy-supported life under each light condition until we determine the limits of light-supported growth. Together these results should help us estimate the initial light energy limits necessary to support life in this model system. What you can Learn (but not limited to): Microbiology techniques and culture methods, making different types of media, sample preparation for different analytical methods, experimental designs, and the use of various laboratory instruments such as pH meter, autoclave, pipettes, centrifuge, and microscopy.
Click here for more information about Dr. Barton’s lab