Navigating a life in science

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Senior Merissa Acerbi (right) works in the lab with her mentor, Dr. Cordula Mora.Senior Merissa Acerbi (right) works in the lab with her mentor, Dr. Cordula Mora.
Pigeon

By Bonnie Blankinship

Her email signature is a quote from Leonardo da Vinci: "Learning never exhausts the mind."

For senior Merissa Acerbi, hands-on engagement in neuroscience has proven a wellspring of inspiration and discovery. She began her first research experience just one month into freshman year.

"Learning more about how the brain works — I didn't realize how interested I would be. Now I'm realizing how passionate I've become about this," she said.

As she prepares to begin her final undergraduate year, Acerbi has already amassed a record of research and even publishing that would be the envy of any graduate student. A 2013 Ronald E. McNair Scholar who has also twice participated in National Science Foundation-funded SETGO (Science, Engineering, Technology Gateway Ohio) and received several Center for Undergraduate Research and Scholarship (CURS) grants, Acerbi is one of the many BGSU students who have taken advantage of opportunities to conduct original research and also to receive significant financial and mentoring support.

She has also had the benefit of being involved with scientists who are at the top of their fields. BGSU is an international leader in avian hippocampal research and the animal behavior/comparative approach to brain function, a field that was founded by BGSU Distinguished Research Professor Verner Bingman. Acerbi has been working with Dr. Cordula Mora, a research assistant professor and National Science Foundation Fellow in the neuroscience center, since February 2011.

"BGSU not only had an honors program but also the Honors Learning Community...I wanted a community feel, and I love it. It's different from the usual dorm living. We have great advisers, and smaller classes with great discussions." Today, when Acerbi's not traveling the world to give presentations on her research, you will find the psychology and neuroscience major spending 25-30 hours a week in the lab, including summers, training and working with homing pigeons to learn how they use their inborn "compass" to navigate.

Acerbi is part of the University's Center for Neuroscience, Mind and Behavior, which is generating knowledge about the source of pigeons' navigational ability that may have implications for genetics, conservation and even diseases in humans such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's.

"This is really novel work," Acerbi said. "It has some fundamental benefits to society. In both Parkinson's and Alzheimer's, there are spatial memory issues, and often one of the first symptoms of Alzheimer's is losing your ability to navigate."

The long hours in the lab and control room have yielded findings that she has presented at the Royal Institute of Navigation - Animal Navigation conference in England as well as at the international undergraduate psychology conference at Stanford University, the Society for Neuroscience annual international conference in New Orleans, and at other conferences around Ohio. Following the trip with Mora to England, she also visited two universities in Germany where she might do her graduate work. All her travel was funded through various grants.

When she first came to Bowling Green from Kenosha, Wis., she had no idea her undergraduate career would turn out this way, Acerbi said. She chose BGSU because she wanted to major in psychology and be involved in an honors program.

"BGSU not only had an honors program but also the Honors Learning Community," she said. "I wanted a community feel, and I love it. It's different from the usual dorm living. We have great advisers, and smaller classes with great discussions."

That was all good, but two additional key things happened freshman year that led her to her work with the neuroscience center: Her honors adviser recommended she take an introduction to neuroscience course, and in that course the graduate assistant recommended she meet Mora, who has a roughly $500,000 grant from the NSF for the homing pigeon research.

Mora quickly recruited the promising freshman to work in her lab.

"We've known that a sort of inner compass exists in birds since the 1970s, but we don't know where exactly in the brain it is located," said Mora, whose own work deals more with the birds' "map" sense. Both the map and compass are necessary for them to find their way in flight.

After training the pigeons for complex tasks, which Mora said Acerbi is especially good at, the researchers observe the birds as they sense and respond to magnetic cues.

"They are so good at what they do," Acerbi noted. She and several undergraduate researchers, including Michael Brooks, Stephanie Davis, Serena Foor, Aaron O'Brien, Jessica Sharp and Jazzmin Williams, observe them on computer monitors from a small control room so as not to unintentionally provide the birds any cues. The students working in the Mora lab have all produced new knowledge that is receiving recognition among the scientific community.

The partnerships with Mora have been fruitful academically and in discovery. Acerbi is using her research for her honors project, and two of the other honors students plan to do so next fall. Acerbi and Mora together won the Elliot L. Blinn Award for Faculty-Undergraduate Student Basic Research/Creative Work this spring.

"Merissa is already used to working in a research setting with a mentor, and is now able to work fairly independently."Mora is dedicated not only to her own research into homing pigeons' navigational processes, but also to helping students gain research experience and learn the ways of science, as well as helping them connect with support programs. "I had a feeling about Merissa right away," she said. "She's a fabulous student."

In her three years at BGSU, Mora worked with 16 undergraduate and students on various aspects of her research; currently she has seven undergraduates.

"Early research experience is so important," Mora said. "Merissa is already used to working in a research setting with a mentor, and is now able to work fairly independently. She also is able to read and write scientific literature, and by attending conferences and giving poster and PowerPoint presentations is polishing her public speaking.

"I believe that taking students who have the ability and the talent and giving them the support, they become very competitive for graduate school and in their careers," Mora said.

Her experiences as a SETGO student with Mora helped Acerbi find her direction, she said, and the McNair Program, which is designed to support students through to their Ph.D. program, has helped with such things as preparing for the GRE.

But achieving such success as Acerbi and her fellow students have does not come without a big commitment on their part.

"A typical day for me during the school year (not summer) includes morning classes, usually from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., work at my second job as a clerical assistant in the College of Technology from 1-5 p.m., and then work in the lab on my research projects from 5- 8 p.m. or later," Acerbi said. "I then find time on the weekends and weeknights to study, prep for classes and any other school work I may have. I enjoy a social life that is a small percentage of the rest of my time here at BGSU, but love all of the people I have been able to meet so far through my journey here!"

Inspired by the mentoring she has received from her professors and graduate assistants, she has in turn taken a leadership role with other up-and-coming students through such events as Women in Science Day and STEM in the Park. "It's so gratifying to share that passion with them," Acerbi said.

(Posted June 17, 2013 )