William & Mary

Wendy Herbst '14 presents at Neuroscience Research Symposium

Wendy Herbst '14Wendy Herbst '14 has been working in Professor Saha's laboratory since the spring semester of her freshman year. On March 21 she gave a presentation titled, "The Role of Calcium Activity in Neuronal Phenotype Specification," as part of the Neuroscience Program's 2013 Spring Research Symposium.

"As a freshman, I started with a few small experiments, and I’ve eagerly followed the direction that the science has taken me," Wendy says.

Over the past two years she has investigated the role of voltage-gated calcium channels (VGCCs) as potential regulators of calcium activity during early neural development. Her research is helping to determine how each of the ~100 billion neurons in the brain acquires the appropriate expression of receptors and neurotransmitters. Many neurological disorders, including schizophrenia, epilepsy, and autism, result from misregulation of calcium activity. Wendy's research results thus hold potential for clinical applications to address these kinds of disorders.

"I’ve conducted 'knockdown' experiments, which prevent the expression of a specific gene, and these experiments have indicated that VGCCs do in fact mediate calcium activity. Knocking down VGCCs also has a downstream effect on the expression of an inhibitory neural marker, glutamic acid decarboxylase (GAD)."

A diagram of Herbst's experimentTo maintain a steady level of neural activity, brain cells compensate for high levels of calcium with increased numbers of inhibitory neurons and for low levels of calcium with increased numbers of excitatory neurons. Wendy's goal is to correlate different patterns of calcium activity with the expression of specific neural genes. Working with developing Xenopus embryos, she images calcium activity live in the neural plate using a calcium-sensitive fluorescent protein and confocal microscopy.

"I’m also interested in manipulating calcium activity in these embryos, either pharmacologically or with RNA constructs, to see if this alters the resulting expression of neural genes."

{{youtube:medium:right|jOuO-A6RGZw}}Wendy's continuing project has been accepted as a Biology Honors project, which she plans to complete during her senior year in 2013-14. Her research has been funded in part by the James Monroe Scholars, Howard Hughes Medical Institute Scholars, and Honors Fellowships programs at the College.

"Research has been the most exciting aspect of my education at William and Mary. I’ve become engrossed in both the theory behind my project and the intensive protocols. I’ve learned so much about molecular biology and neuroscience, and I’m able to apply this knowledge to my classes."