Science at Cambridge: Neuroscience and moody teenagers

14d-megan-hutchings-photo-3UniversityI studied Natural Sciences at Murray Edwards College, specialising in Neuroscience in my final year. I had been interested in Neuroscience ever since completing my Extended Project in high school. In my project I looked into the debate about whether adolescent behaviour was more influenced by genetics or by the environment. Although honestly I was just searching for an excuse to be a moody teenager and not be blamed for it! After my initial interest was sparked I became more and more interested in Neuroscience. I find this subject fascinating as I find studying Neuroscience a way of trying to understand how humans work at the most fundamental level.

I particularly enjoyed studying a modular course at Cambridge as it allowed me to study the aspects of my subject I find most interesting, I particularly enjoyed the fact I was able to take modules on neural networks as well as a psychology module on memory.

My studies never ceased to fascinate me and made me realise just how amazing our brain and by extension we as humans are. There was a continual realisation of how seemingly simple processes are actually much more complex than they appear on the surface. For example, vision seems fairly straightforward, but you can find people who are ‘blind’ but can still tell you where objects are or how they are orientated, even though they cannot ‘see’ them. Or that memories are not fixed and immutable and can be updated or altered. Even that we have different types of memories! All of this I found fascinating and it made me appreciate my brain and my body so much more when I could understand a slightly larger proportion of what it was doing for me on a daily basis.

This in part is why I would encourage young women today to pursue science as a subject; the ability to understand more about the world around you or yourself can only lead to a greater appreciation of how wondrous these things truly are.

Megan Hutchings
Alumna

Science issue: Behavioral flexibility and brain size in birds

Corina Logan (Sonia Fernandez)
Dr Corina Logan and grackle (photographed by Sonia Fernandez)

News

It’s so early it’s still dark and I’m driving to a cold, windy beach in Santa Barbara, California to catch grackles next to a roosting site I found the week before. Great-tailed grackles (Quiscalus mexicanus) are one of the most invasive native species in North America and they are presumed to be so successful because of their flexible behavior that allows them to adapt to new situations. However, their intelligence has not yet been tested so we don’t know for sure. Until now. Armed with a grant from the National Geographic Society / Waitt Grants Program and a fellowship from the SAGE Center for the Study of the Mind at the University of California Santa Barbara, I set out to determine how these grackles compare to New Caledonian crows when tested on the same experiments.

I caught four grackles at a time and brought them into aviaries to give them choice tests, and I found that on some of the tests, they are as good as the crows. As well, both species show flexible behaviors (Logan et al. 2014, Logan 2015). According to common assumptions, this is surprising because crows have much bigger brains than grackles. However, new research is showing that a larger brain doesn’t necessarily mean there are more neurons, and since neurons are the substrate on which cognition occurs, neuron number is more likely to be the crucial measure for predicting which species should possess complex cognition (Herculano-Houzel et al. 2009, Kazu et al. 2014).

The grackles are amazing to work with: they habituate to the aviary almost instantly and readily choose to participate in the choice tests.

Each one seems to have their own personality: Michelada appeared curious about human behavior because she would sit as close as she could to us and watch whatever we were doing. I wonder what she was thinking.

I put unique combinations of colored rings on their legs so I can identify individuals and study their behavior in the wild to answer questions about whether individual differences in cognitive abilities provide fitness benefits (e.g., increased numbers of offspring). One of my favorite parts of this research is when I get to take the aviary grackles back to the beach where I caught them, open the door to their transport cages, and watch them fly free in the wild again.

Corina Logan
Alumna
Leverhulme Early Career Research Fellow, Department of Zoology, University of Cambridge

Do you want to see what life in the field is like in New Caledonia? Check out my National Geographic Explorers Journal video blog http://newswatch.nationalgeographic.com/author/corinalogan/

See the latest grackle news on twitter https://twitter.com/LoganCorina

References

Herculano-Houzel, S. (2009). The human brain in numbers: a linearly scaled-up primate brain. Frontiers in human neuroscience, 3.

Kazu, R. S., Maldonado, J., Mota, B., Manger, P. R., & Herculano-Houzel, S. (2014). Cellular scaling rules for the brain of Artiodactyla include a highly folded cortex with few neurons. Frontiers in neuroanatomy, 8.

Logan CJ, Jelbert SA, Breen AJ, Gray RD, Taylor AH (2014) Modifications to the Aesop’s Fable paradigm change performances in New Caledonian crows. PLOS ONE 9:e103049. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0103049

Logan CJ. 2015. Innovation does not indicate behavioral flexibility in great-tailed grackles. bioRxiv. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1101/027706.

Science at Cambridge: Engineering

5D Kate WilkinsonUniversityMy name is Kate Wilkinson and I have just started my third year of engineering at Murray Edwards.

I had enjoyed Chemistry, Biology and especially Physics at school and college, but was finding it hard to narrow down my interests. My combined interests in science and design led me to attend a Headstart summer school programme for engineering after my first year of college.  I spent a week in another college at Cambridge attending lectures, working on mini-projects and enjoying a taste of university life. This allowed me to discover that engineering is a fascinating combination of all of the sciences applied to real-world problem solving, with room for a creative flare. I became certain it was the right degree for me.

After two years studying the foundations in all areas of engineering, I decided to specialise in Electrical and Information Engineering. For me this choice was significant as I had begun the course wanting to become a Civil engineer.  I never expected to find electronics so engaging. The great part of the course at Cambridge is that it gives you time to identify your areas of interest before you make a commitment.

At the end of last year I had an opportunity to attend a lecture course covering an introduction to Bioengineering. It investigated the structure and function of the eye and retinal image processing in the brain. Although based on biology and neuroscience, the course incorporated many of the engineering analysis techniques we had learnt over the past two years. I was particularly fascinated to learn about the ongoing development of retinal implants comprising a microelectronic chip with light sensitive pixels, which can partially restore sight. I think it is amazing that we can use electronics and information engineering principles to interface with one of the most complex and little understood organs in the body – the brain. It also demonstrates the wide range of areas engineering principles can be applied to.

This year I will take a neuroscience course with the intention of understanding more about the technology that can interact with and simulate stimulus processing in the brain.

I love the practical aspect of engineering, and the part of my course that separates it from the other sciences is the opportunity to apply scientific knowledge to hands-on design. So far this has included scale model bridge building, and the design and testing of a robot.

I would encourage others to study engineering as it is an amazingly diverse field, and you acquire a set of skills that you can apply to so many different career paths. I would thoroughly recommend attending an engineering summer school, or even spending a day work-shadowing, to get a true feel of the subject.

Career Path: Bringing the scientific method to the classroom

Career
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“Oh!”, they say and you see their face light up as the penny drops. This is one of the joys of working in teaching. Currently I’m working in teacher professional development, at the UCL Institute of Education, and I see that face on teachers too. One of the courses I run explains the neuroscience of learning and the teenage brain. There are changes in the brain during the teenage years, a sort of puberty of the brain, that helps to explain what can otherwise seem like inexplicable behaviours. In addition we have some fairly good (in terms of well evidenced) theories of learning based in current neuroscience. Armed with this knowledge teachers can plan their lessons better, and at key points in that course I see the ‘penny drops’ face.

Being a science teacher with a strong academic background, including time spent in research, I am able to bring what I know about the scientific method to the classroom. Neuroscience, in which I did my MSc and MPhil, is one of my favourite subjects: it is fascinating, but it is also an incredible tool for improving learning. When students understand how the brain works they understand why revision is important and how to go about it. When teachers understand they are able to make their lessons more productive.

I apply the rigour of evidence and scientific thought to my teaching as whole. When someone says “you should do this, it improves learning”, my first question is ‘what’s the evidence?’ and my second is ‘what’s the mechanism?’; and I owe that to my scientific training. In a profession inundated with initiatives and pressure from all directions, it is helpful to be able to look at each suggestion in this way. It is one of the reasons I am glad to have pursued the sciences, and one of the reasons I am passionate about sharing that understanding of the scientific method with students. I know that whether or not my students become the STEM professionals of the future, they will need to make decisions for themselves and their communities. Armed with scientific skills they will be better placed to make informed decisions.

I love to share my passion not just for the scientific method but also just for science itself. It can be a challenge to teach a subject everyone has to study up to 16, and though it can be heart warming to have a student who from the outset loves science, it is brilliant to be able to turn on a student who is switched off from the subject. “Miss, science isn’t important to my life!”, and variations of that are statements I have heard often. Relishing this, I turn to the student and say “Tell me something that is important to you”, and then proceed to link whatever they say to science. I always get there!

I’m returning to the classroom to teach this September and can’t wait. Although studying at Cambridge wasn’t easy, I loved it because I love learning. I think one of the reasons I love teaching so much is this love of learning. As the end of term approaches, I remember another phrase that students would throw at me, this one generally reserved for one of the last lessons of term: “Miss, can we do something fun today?”. I always take great pleasure in replying: “Yes, we are going to do something fun today [dramatic pause as students start beaming and almost jumping out their seats]. We are going to… [extra pause, as they look at me expectantly]…do some learning!”

Misbah Arif
Alumna

@iSciTeacher

3A Misbah Arif Using the context of chocolate to teach Year 4 students about particles
Using the context of chocolate to teach Year 4 students about particles