Rebecca Shansky
Rebecca Shansky, assis­tant pro­fessor in the Depart­ment of Psy­chology.
Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

by Thea Singer

Reading sci­en­tific literature—a must for any researcher—is akin to learning a new lan­guage. Jargon-​​filled sen­tences, often in the pas­sive voice, can be inde­ci­pher­able. Fig­ures with cryptic, acronym-​​laden cap­tions fly at you. Con­clu­sions may sound rea­son­able, but how do you know the data is reli­able or that con­founding fac­tors didn’t skew the results?

Rebecca Shansky, assis­tant pro­fessor in the Depart­ment of Psy­chology, offers a cap­stone course to help stu­dents start the trans­la­tion process early. Called “Sem­inar in Bio­log­ical Psy­chology: Animal Models of Mental Ill­ness,” the course has a dual focus: Stu­dents learn—through reading more than 20 journal arti­cles, giving pre­sen­ta­tions, and rig­orous discussions—how to crit­i­cally ana­lyze aca­d­emic papers while simul­ta­ne­ously gaining a solid footing in the lit­er­a­ture exploring the ways animal research con­tributes to our under­standing of the causes under­lying psy­chi­atric disorders.

“One of the really impor­tant things about learning to be a sci­en­tist is thinking crit­i­cally and under­standing that just because a paper is peer reviewed and pub­lished doesn’t mean that it’s without flaws,” says Shansky, who’s been teaching the sem­inar since 2013. “It’s impor­tant to take the time to under­stand the exper­i­mental design and the tech­niques and assump­tions of the research because how the work was done can influ­ence the inter­pre­ta­tion of the findings.”

The road to cre­ative thinking

An animal model of a mental ill­ness could be a rat that exhibits signs of post-​​traumatic stress dis­order after being exposed to a preda­tory cat and con­tinual new cage­mates for a des­ig­nated period of time or one that exhibits symp­toms of schiz­o­phrenia in ado­les­cence because a lesion was intro­duced into a spe­cific part of its brain at birth. Researchers per­form exper­i­ments on such ani­mals as an ini­tial step to deter­mine, for example, how a par­tic­ular med­ica­tion might affect the con­di­tion in humans.

Using Pow­er­Point or Google Docs, stu­dents in Shansky’s class decon­struct and present pub­lished research that uses such animal models, reporting on every graph and figure illus­trating the find­ings. Shansky then uses her knowl­edge of the field to push the stu­dents to dig deeper, think more critically.

“In behav­ioral neu­ro­science, researchers do some­thing to an animal and it changes its behavior,” says Shansky. “In order to con­clude why it’s changed its behavior, we need to rule out alter­nate expla­na­tions. So I might say to a stu­dent, ‘OK, the animal started walking faster. But does that mean it’s feeling more anx­ious or some­thing else? What kinds of exper­i­ments could you do to zero in on the real driver?”

Joseph Zaki, S’18, who took the class this fall, can attest to the value of Shansky’s methods. “Now when I read papers I don’t just accept the con­clu­sion but inves­ti­gate how con­vincing I think it is based on the data,” he says. “For example, I might look to see if enough exper­i­ments were per­formed to rule out mis­in­ter­pre­ta­tions, or if enough sub­jects were in the study, say, 10 mice instead of just three, to jus­tify the argu­ment. Once you under­stand the lit­er­a­ture, you can start thinking cre­atively as a scientist.”

Zaki, a behav­ioral neu­ro­science major and com­puter sci­ence minor, came into the class with some expe­ri­ence parsing journal arti­cles. He had done two co-​​ops in neu­ro­science research labs, one at Har­vard Med­ical School, where he explored the cen­ters of smell in the mouse brain, and the other at Tufts Med­ical Center, where he plumbed the mol­e­c­ular mech­a­nisms under­lying fear, learning, and memory in mice. He credits Shansky’s class with opening his eyes to the many ways animal models can be used to under­stand not just ill­nesses such as addic­tion and schiz­o­phrenia but also coping mech­a­nisms, including resilience to stress.

“The class really pushed me to the next level and helped me start to focus on what I want to study in grad school,” he says. For his final paper, he dove into the sub­ject of spon­ta­neous recovery in post-​​traumatic stress disorder—a little-​​studied phe­nom­enon rel­e­vant to humans because it could reveal impor­tant infor­ma­tion about relapse. “In my next co-​​op, at the Har­vard Center for Brain Sci­ence, I want to explore that,” he says.

The tools to advance research

Shansky says that about half her stu­dents come in with expe­ri­ence reading journal arti­cles, half without it. Ronan Talty, S’17, who has worked in Shansky’s Lab­o­ra­tory of Neu­roanatomy and Behavior since his freshman year, had that expe­ri­ence from co-​​ops and research assist­ant­ships but says the class went fur­ther. “It has a broad scope,” he says. “It exposes you not just to research related to a par­tic­ular lab but to the fun­da­mental research in an entire subfield.”

In addi­tion to win­ning the 2015 RISE under­grad­uate poster award in the phys­ical and life sci­ences cat­e­gory for research he did with Shansky, Talty has worked as a research assis­tant in two labs at the Icahn School of Med­i­cine at Mount Sinai. The first exam­ined how patho­log­ical brain activity con­tributes to gen­er­ating seizures in epilepsy patients, and the second inves­ti­gated the effects of charged par­ticle irra­di­a­tion on cog­ni­tive func­tion in mice in an effort to learn more about the effects of irra­di­a­tion during space travel.

Yet it was not until Shansky’s class that he had the oppor­tu­nity to explore the pro­gres­sion of research tech­niques by looking at papers across the years, to com­pare and con­trast papers that asked sim­ilar ques­tions but came up with dif­ferent con­clu­sions, and to address the suit­ability of a par­tic­ular animal model for the exper­i­ment at hand.

For example, he says, the com­pare and con­trast approach forced stu­dents to inves­ti­gate whether the researchers used dif­ferent behav­ioral stres­sors, or rats versus mice, males versus females, or ani­mals of dif­ferent ages. The ques­tion about appro­priate animal models invited stu­dents to both revise the exper­i­ment and sug­gest improve­ments to the model itself.

“To study a mouse exhibiting behavior mod­eling depres­sion, a researcher might use the forced swim test,” says Talty, who is cur­rently com­pleting his honors thesis in the lab of Northeastern’s Greg Miller, asso­ciate pro­fessor in the Bouvé Col­lege of Health Sci­ences, and applying to com­bined med­ical and doc­torate pro­grams. “A shorter swim could indi­cate depres­sion. But it could also mean that the mouse just real­ized that once it stopped swim­ming it would be taken out of the water.”

“This class,” he says, “gave us to the tools to tease apart the dif­ferent fac­tors that con­tribute to sci­en­tific outcomes.”

Originally published in news@Northeastern on January 4, 2017.