Psych prof. Steve Siviy’s research goes global

Professor Steve Siviy works with students in researching and observing “play” in two
strains of rats. (Photo courtesy of GCC&M.)

By Nikki Rhoads, Courtesy of GCC&M

What does a rat’s behavior during play have to do with anxiety in children? That is one of the questions psychology Prof. Steve Siviy is trying to answer.

And now, that research is taking not only Siviy, but also his students, around the globe.

Siviy has studied play behavior in rats and the associated brain mechanisms for most of his career, and he has involved students in that work for almost a quarter century.

His most recent research, funded by a National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant, examines how anxiety and early maternal experiences affect play behavior in rats. His work has health implications for humans, as many psychiatric disorders in childhood, including anxiety, are associated with social dysfunction that can express itself through a lack of play.

“Play is an early social behavior in most mammals,” Siviy said. “It’s through play that we learn social skills and how to interact with others.”

Siviy is now about a year into his grant. He is collecting data and finishing up experiments related to the first phase of the project, which involves cross-fostering, or switching the pups from one strain of rat, letting them be raised by a mother from another strain, and observing the resulting behavior of the mothers and pups.

“The more data we collect in rats, the clearer it becomes that social skills are fine tuned during early social behavior, including play,” Siviy said. He and his students are also moving into the second phase of the project, which considers whether the differences in play behavior between two strains of rat are due to differences in their oxytocin systems.

Siviy has enlisted a number of Gettysburg students to work with him on the NIH funded project, both in his lab on campus and in a lab doing similar work at Utrecht University in the Netherlands, where Siviy spent a recent sabbatical. Two seniors – Lexi Turano, a psychology major and neuroscience minor, and Caroline Garliss, a biology major with minors in neuroscience and music – were instrumental in helping Siviy get the project off the ground.

They both had the opportunity to travel to the Netherlands this past summer to gain insight on a procedure that is vital to the research. Working with Dr. Louk Vanderschuren and Dr. Heidi Lesscher at Utrecht University, Turano and Garliss learned about, observed, and conducted intra- cranial infusion surgeries on rats – a delicate yet key procedure in Siviy’s research.

Days at the lab were often long, but rewarding, and included work with other students (all in Ph.D. or Masters programs), conducting experiments, caring for rats, and observing their behavior.

Turano says that the experience was unmatched, and that it was “eye-opening” to control and run an entire experiment.

The experience in Holland and research with Siviy helped her confirm that she wants to pursue a Ph.D. in neuroscience, and hopes that it will give her a leg up when applying to graduate school.

Not only did the experience in Utrecht provide the students with valuable skills that could be applied to Siviy’s project upon returning to campus and future research, Turano adds that the experience in Holland showed her how universal science is – and how the discipline can connect individuals from different parts of the world.

“In my past experiences with international students at NIH and in my own experience in the Department of Animals in Science and Society in Holland, I’ve come to realize that a scientific laboratory is capable of creating a sense of familiarity and comfort in a place that might be completely foreign. And that familiarity is very welcome,” she said. Turano and Garliss aren’t the only students to work with Siviy on this project.

Juniors Lana McDowell, a biology and health sciences major and neuroscience minor, and Samantha Eck, a psychology major and neuroscience minor, have helped Siviy with the project from his Gettysburg lab, both during the school year and over the summer. McDowell, who plans to pursue medical school after graduation, says the experience working with Siviy has been profound, “This research gives me an advantage as I move forward, not only in terms of strengthening my resume, but also instilling a strong work ethic,” she said.

McDowell and Eck will get their turn researching at the lab in Utrecht during summer 2015. Siviy is no stranger to conducting research abroad, himself.

In addition to the sabbatical in Holland, he also spent a sabbatical at a lab in Sydney, Australia (where he had conducted post- doctoral research years before). His work in Sydney focused on fear in rats when exposed to cat odor, and how that affected their play behavior.

The data he collected in Sydney was used to write a number of papers, and along with his later sabbatical at Utrecht University, eventually led to the NIH grant proposal for his current project.

The hope at that time, he says, was to have his students experience working in the Utrecht lab (and their students come to the U.S.) – a hope that was realized after the NIH funding came though. Siviy, Turano, Garliss, McDowell, and Eck will be attending the Society for Neuroscience’s annual meeting later this year to share what they have learned thus far.

It is clear that Siviy’s research not only has value to the fields of neuroscience, psychology, and more, but also to the students he involves in it.

“Professor Siviy is the reason I came to Gettysburg. During my visit to campus, I ran into him in the Science Center. When he found out I was interested in neuroscience, he showed me his lab,” said Turano. “I knew I wanted to work with him then, and the experience has been great. It’s really exciting to have data of my own that I can show to graduate professors who I want to work with in the future.”

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Author: Isabel Gibson Penrose

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