scaplen trial
Assistant Professor of Psychology Kristin Scaplen, Ph.D., led one of the three teams of Bryant student researchers who will present their scientific findings at the 2023 RI Summer Undergraduate Research Symposium.
‘I’m part of this larger conversation’: Student researchers make scientific impact in RI
Jul 26, 2023, by Stephen Kostrzewa
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On July 28, undergraduate researchers from around the state will present their work at the RI Summer Undergraduate Research Symposium (SURS), an annual event where students share their findings with the larger scientific community. Among their number will be 10 Bryant students who made discoveries across a variety of fields — including biology, chemistry, psychology, and neuropsychology — over the course of a summer of intensive research.

Funded through the Rhode Island IDeA Network of Biomedical Research Excellence
(RI-INBRE) Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) program, grants, and Bryant’s own Center for Health and Behavioral Sciences, the Bryant summer research experience helps student investigators develop their scientific acumen, knowledge of lab procedures, and presentation and teamwork skills. Led by the School of Health and Behavioral Sciences’ Professor of Biomedical and Biological Sciences Christopher Reid, Ph.D.; Assistant Professor of Psychology Kristin Scaplen, Ph.D.; and Assistant Professor of Biological and Biomedical Sciences Steven Weicksel, Ph.D., the undergraduate students also make lifelong connections, explore career options, and gain key experience.

Gabrielle Martino ’25, a Biology major who plans to go to medical school, jumped at the chance to work in Scaplen’s lab. “I wanted to gain a new perspective. Being a science major, you learn about so many things, but it's another thing entirely to get real experience doing them,” she notes.

Her research, Martino says, has helped to add a new dimension to her studies. “You start to realize, I’m part of this larger conversation and really contributing to the field,” she reflects. “I think my biggest takeaway from my time in the lab is just really coming to understand how important research like this is and the impact it can have in real life with real patients.”

Scaplen, worked with several Bryant student researchers across six different projects, continuing her exploration of the neurological circuits and mechanisms that contribute to alcohol use and addiction. Having the opportunity to do real-world science experiments, she says, can be a transformative moment for students.

“When they realize that there are so many questions that still do not have answers — and that they have the opportunity to help answer them — it can be very exciting for them,” Scaplen notes. “They begin to understand that all of the ideas and concepts they’ve learned about in the classroom were discovered in a lab not too unlike their own.”

Martino is also learning what it means to be a working scientist and all the effort that goes into it. But when the stars align, and the results come in, she says, it’s all worth it. Just a week ago, she says, her team was able to view some of the first images coming from their work investigating neural circuitry changes in fly brains in response to alcohol-associated memories. “It was amazing to see so many weeks of work represented like that,” she says.

“Working with fly brains wasn’t really ever what I thought about when I thought about summer vacation,” says Martino with a chuckle. “But it’s been a really rewarding experience.”

Bryant students will present the following projects at this year’s SURS conference, held at the University of Rhode Island:

Scaplen Lab
“Using the Drosophila transcriptional reporter of intracellular calcium (TRIC) to examine neurocircuitry changes in response to alcohol intoxication”
Teagan B. Alexander ’24 used a transcriptional reporter of intracellular calcium (TRIC) —a genetic tool used to measure lasting changes in neuroexcitability — to investigate dorsal paired medial (DPM) neuron activity in the fruit fly species Drosophila trained to associate odor cues with alcohol intoxication, providing a better understanding of the precise neural dynamics of DPM across alcohol-associated experiences and their role in the consolidation of alcohol-associated memories.

“Investigating the Role of Serotonin in the Escalation of Alcohol Consumption”
Ramsha Gul ’25 studied the underlying neurological mechanisms that control drinking behaviors and the expression of alcohol-associated memories by utilizing and optimizing the fly liquid-food interaction counter (FLIC), a newly developed consumption assay, to continuously measure alcohol-related feeding behaviors in Drosophila.

“Investigating the Role of Fan-Shaped Body Neurons in Modulating Alcohol-Associated Memories”
Elisabeth Hartzfeld ’25 worked to identify dorsal fan-shaped body (FSB) neurons in Drosophila that modulate alcohol-associated memories and define their role — aiding in the reveal of a circuit framework that spans across brain regions and furthering the understanding of the mechanism by which alcohol alters circuits to result in enduring preferences and alcohol memory durability.

“Investigating neural circuitry changes in response to alcohol-associated memories in the fan-shaped body”
Gabrielle Martino ’25 used a TRIC to measure FSB neuronal activity while flies learned to associate odor cues with intoxicating doses of alcohol. By measuring neuronal changes in response to multiple odor-alcohol training sessions, the experiment helps to set the foundation for future thermogenic and functional imaging experiments using two-photon microscopy.

“Distinct dopamine microcircuits underlying alcohol-induced locomotor activity and alcohol-associated memories in Drosophila melanogaster”
Katelyn D. Caldarone ’24 worked on a multipronged experiment that combined behavior, thermogenetic, and high-content behavioral analysis to investigate whether distinct dopamine neurons (DANs) implicated in alcohol reward responses are also important for modulating movement responsiveness to alcohol.

“Defining dopaminergic neural dynamics during the formation of alcohol associated memories in Drosophila”
Rhode Island College student Michael J. Zajac, who participated in Scaplen’s lab through the SURF program, worked with her to measure dopamine neural activity in Drosophila trained to associate odor cues with alcohol intoxication. By measuring neural activity across time, the experiment helps to reveal how memory circuits are modified by intoxicating doses of alcohol to create enduring preferences for cues associated with intoxication.

Weicksel Lab
Lauren Rothwell ’26 and Makayla Griffin ’24 worked with Professor  Weicksel  on two projects this summer.

“Chromatin organization and gene regulation in zebrafish”
Rothwell and Griffin investigated the similarities between the POLQ gene in zebrafish and its human counterpart, specifically pertaining to its role in repairing DNA damage caused by UV radiation. Mutations in POLQ have been identified in patient-derived melanoma tumors and may inhibit the repair process of UV-induced lesions, leading to the development of melanoma in humans.

“DNA polymerase POLQ’s role in melanoma using zebrafish as model organism”
Weicksel’s team, working with South Kingstown High School students Nathalie Champney and Cory Thomas, as well as Jamie Towle-Weicksel, associate professor at Rhode Island College, studied zebrafish hox genes to better understand chromatin organization, which affects how genes are expressed. Disruptions in chromosome organization can often result in disruptions of cell function that can lead to diseases such as cancer, but there is currently not a full understanding of the mechanisms that control chromatin loop formation.

Reid Lab
Professor of Biology and Biomedical Studies Chris Reid, Ph.D., continued his longstanding work on antibiotic research with Bryant student researchers Jett DuVal ’24, Ethan Hall ’24, and Jingmei Zeng ’23, and recent alumna Paige Ring ’22.

“Breaking free: Selective amide hydrolysis in monosubstituted glycine diamides”
Duval investigated an organic chemistry method that would allow the exploration of different structures of the chemical compound masarimycin, an inhibitor with antibacterial applications developed in the Reid lab. Altering masarimycin’s structure could potentially increase its potency and utility, and support future exploration.

“Probing changes to LytG structure in the presence of inhibitors and buffer excipients using UV absorbance spectroscopy”
Hall worked to establish investigative procedures to analyze the strength of the interaction between masarimycin and the LytG protein in the Bacillus bacterium to examine its potency. The results of the experiment will advance future experimentation and allow for the benchmarking of masarimycin against other inhibitors.

“Development of a fluorescent-based assay for characterization of Candida sp. β-(1,3)-glucan transglycosylase phr1”
Zeng and Ring worked to develop viable, sensitive, and rapid investigative procedures that could be used to evaluate potential inhibitors of Phr1, an important virulence factor for Candida parapsilosis, a fungal species of yeast that has become a significant cause of sepsis and of wound and tissue infections in immunocompromised people. 

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