Story posted November 20, 2012
Taylor Johnson '11 dips a net into a tank as fish zip away from her swipe. "The males can be hard to catch," she says.
Once she captures a couple of males, she nabs a female, then plops them into an observation tank outfitted with video recording equipment. This menage a trois will now become part of an ongoing experiment in sexual behavior among goldfish.
"After the fish go through the behavioral paradigm, we'll anaesthetize them and draw blood to see if the behavioral manipulations we've done have effectively increased levels of testosterone," notes Johnson.
"It sounds super nerdy," she says, laughing, "but I really like it. Neuroscience is really fun for me."
Johnson is one in a succession of undergraduate neuroscience researchers who is helping Thompson net new understanding of the role of steroids in affecting behavior.
Steroids are commonly thought to be slow-acting molecules that affect processes such as gene transcription and protein translation, but Thompson's goldfish experiments are demonstrating rapid behavioral responses to injections of estradiol and testosterone.
"We see changes in sexual behavior within 10 to 20 minutes," notes Thompson, associate professor of psychology and neuroscience. "We're trying to figure out how that happens in the brain so quickly. They use visual cues to make sexual decisions and steroids seems to be affecting this process."
The research, which is being funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation, had its beginnings in an honors project by Louis-David Lord '08, who had taken Thompson's Hormones and Behavior class.
Lord was the first to show rapid behavioral effects of testosterone and estradiol. That work was followed up by Julia Bond '10. Both students are co-authors with Thompson on a published paper on the topic in the journal Hormones and Behavior.
The legacy of student research at Bowdoin is something Johnson hopes will put her in good stead for life after college: She plans to work as a researcher before heading to medical school.
"The lab time is definitely demanding," she says, "but it's nice to be doing novel science that no one's ever explored before."