In much of basic science, mice serve as important models of human conditions. Researchers can manipulate their genes, linking them with specific functions, and can translate the findings to humans. But the many ways in which mice differ from humans can present challenges to that research—and to the mice themselves.
“There was a pretty steep initial learning curve in taking care of the mice,” says Rebecca Maher ’13, who, with classmates Uttara Partap and Christine Schindler, was honored in the spring by the American Physiological Society. The trio won three out of 13 David S. Bruce Excellence in Undergraduate Research awards presented at the association’s Experimental Biology conference—the first time three students from Williams have won in the same year.
Lab mice are usually housed in temperatures of around 20 degrees Celsius (68 degrees Fahrenheit), which is comfortable for humans but too cold for mice, causing them to suffer “cold stress.” Maher’s research examines ways to alleviate that stress. Simply housing mice together or in nests could do the trick, she found after testing different conditions and monitoring the mice’s heart rates, blood pressure and metabolic rates.
Partap and Schindler worked together on two sides of an important finding related to the drug rapamycin, which has caught the attention of many researchers as a potential longevity drug. The two students found that rapamycin can cause insulin resistance, pancreatic damage and diabetes in mice. They also found that the effects of rapamycin were different for male and female mice and were, to varying degrees, reversible.
Both Maher and Partap have previous research experience. Maher was a research assistant at the Yale Cancer Center. Partap, meanwhile, worked with Steven Swoap, Williams professor and chair of biology, for two years and, with David Hill ’73, director of Quinnipiac University’s Global Public Health Program, co-authored two published papers on public health that grew out of a 2010 Winter Study course at Williams.
Working on a thesis was a much different experience for the students. “It allowed me to more independently think about, design and work on a project that really interests me,” Partap says.
As impressive as their results were, Swoap says a thesis project is less about getting the right answers than it is about learning to design experiments and develop and test hypotheses. Even if students fail to get the results they initially expect, it doesn’t constitute a failed experiment, he says.
“Students at Williams own their projects, becoming intellectually engaged and invested in them,” Swoap says. “They emotionally and intellectually understand the project. They know it in and out.”
—Joon Hun Seong ’14