Author Archives: Evelyn Sturrock

You’ll Never Know if You Don’t Go, You’ll Never Shine if You Don’t Glow

What a summer it’s been! I honestly feel like I’ve aged 5 years this summer, but in a good way. No more am I the freshman with no lab skills who can’t cook for herself to save her life.

From my humble beginnings of accidentally dropping a mouse on the floor and getting bitten by BM046 (alias El Diablo), I’ve grown so much as a scientist and a person during my time with the Mooney lab. Growth isn’t really something you realize until you’re looking retrospectively, so I didn’t notice how far I’d come until about week 7. Creating the poster and presenting it in lab meeting and at the poster session really helped me realize how much I learned about vocal communication, mouse courtship behavior, and how helium turns it all upside down. Though I definitely wouldn’t call myself an expert, I gained so much knowledge in a very niche topic of science and gradually got better at communicating it to others. As Dr. G says, science means nothing if you don’t communicate it, and presentation has never been one of my strong suits. But it’s been so gratifying to watch myself grow from giving a half-informed, nervous chalk talk in week 4 to holding my ground during a 45-minute lab meeting presentation in week 8. If you ever need to know ANYTHING about helium affecting mouse ultrasonic vocalizations, I’m your girl.

But besides my new arsenal of intellectual knowledge and laboratory skills, being in a lab surrounded by cool people has just been so much fun. We aren’t workers in cubicles, competing for promotions and passive aggressively shading each other. We’re friends, and I’m thankful the Mooney lab welcomed my shy self into the silliness that punctuates the work day and makes that 9-5 (or sometimes 8-8) just a little more fun. Katie and Valerie had to make a video abstract explaining innate vocalizations, and filmed us all laughing exaggeratedly and crying loudly in the conference room. Marios had a particularly feisty bird that wrestled its way out of his hand and zoomed around the lab for a few minutes, which is apparently pretty common but freaked me out at first. On Jordan’s last day, we got arepas from Guasaca and took a long lunch filled with jokes and fond memories to send him off.

I said it in my very first blog post, but this summer truly cemented what I know about my career, so I’ll say it in all caps: I WANT TO BE A SCIENTIST! Thank you BSURF for being the experience that confirmed my career goals, the springboard for my future, and the best way I could’ve spent my summer. Thank you Dr. Mooney and my mentor Tom for taking on a shy freshman and helping her grow into a confident, inquisitive scientist. Thank you Dr. G for the pep talks and advice along the way and Anna for tirelessly working to feed us breakfast and keep us entertained. Finally, thank you to my fellow bsurfers for making the hours outside of the 9-5 unforgettable. From the food truck rodeo to donut floaties in the Eno Quarry, it was so fun to explore Durham and get to know you all. I can’t wait to see your careers evolve, have an amazing rest of your summers!

American Horror Story: Evolution

Out of all of the inspiring faculty talks, I found Dr. Mohamed Noor’s discussion of evolution and species formation to be particularly intriguing. He was an engaging speaker and really dove into the thought-provoking discussion of how the study of evolution interacts with modern society, in both good ways and bad.

Let’s start with the bad first. As Dr. Patek mentioned in her talk, many fields of scientific research are constantly criticized as obscure, pointless, and wastefully expensive to study, but no field faces fiery tirades of hatred as much as the study of evolution. Dr. Noor mentioned that the US shows one of the highest rates of disbelief in evolution at 28%, which is a shocking statistic when considering how developed and educated our society is. One of the main reasons for this is the discussion of how belief in evolution fits in with our religious beliefs, an interconnection that means something different for everyone and cannot be standardized. For some, believing in God and evolution are strictly mutually exclusive, but for others, they can find peace believing in both. But it’s still pretty taboo to talk about evolution in public settings; it’s just one of those topics that’s better left untouched if you don’t want to anger anyone. Dr. Noor described his visits to school board meetings, where representatives would shy away from taking a position one way or another on evolution in fear of backlash from both sides of the debate.

Here in the Research Triangle bubble, we can comfortably walk around and assume that at least 90% of our fellow Triangle citizens believe at least somewhat in evolution. But there are certainly pockets America where this number would be close to 0. This past spring break, I was walking in Charleston, South Carolina when a man came up to me and handed me a cartoony pamphlet “debunking the fake news of evolution”. Yikes! After ridiculing what are actually misconceptions about evolution (the typical “we came from monkeys” is a massive oversimplification), this pamphlet chastised regulations of some school districts that force teachers to teach evolution and claimed that evolution was a bunch of not-worth-studying, phony science. But Dr. Noor pointed out the very real and very important ways studying evolution helps humanity: understanding evolution is crucial for understanding antibiotic resistance and disease control.

Antibiotic resistance is a rapidly growing problem that is weakening the success rate of well-established antibiotic treatments, even rendering some treatments defunct. Take penicillin for example: Alexander Fleming’s accidental wonder cure of the 1940s, used to fight against a variety of bacteria. Penicillin was everywhere, until natural selection began to kill off the non-resistant strains of bacteria, thus allowing the resistant strains to live without competition for resources. Though still used today, penicillin is nowhere near as popular a treatment as it once was, all due to the natural process of species evolution.

On a happier note, the vicious spread of the mosquito-borne dengue virus in tropical areas has the power to be curbed with the understanding of evolution, and it all starts with a seemingly-unrelated bacteria. The Wolbachia bacteria is spread through mosquitoes, but uninfected females who breed with an infected male will produce no offspring. However, if an infected female breeds with an infected male, they can produce offspring normally. So, it pays to be infected, and as a bonus, natural selection quickly favors infected females as they are more able to pass down traits to their offspring. Uninfected females start to become less common as the infected females reign supreme. But here’s the best part: Wolbachia-infected mosquitoes can’t carry the dengue virus. So what if Wolbachia-infected mosquitoes were introduced into areas where dengue spread rampantly? The uninfected, dengue-carrying females wouldn’t produce offspring with the Wolbachia-infected males, and natural selection would work towards the gradual killing off of the dengue-carrying mosquitoes and promotion of the Wolbachia-infected mosquitoes. Change like this wouldn’t happen overnight, nor is complete elimination of dengue possible using this method, but in tropical climates where dengue spreads like wildfire, this could significantly reduce the number of dengue infections, all thanks to an understanding of evolution.

As you can see, studying evolution is so important to humanitarian crises, and isn’t just a pseudoscience propagated by anti-religion radicals. It’s a shame that “the e word” is still such a touchy topic, but with great scientists like Dr. Noor furthering research and promoting education on evolution, we will hopefully shrink that figure of 28%.


Here is my drafted abstract for my poster, I can’t wait to read about everyone’s research and results!

Male mice produce ultrasonic vocalizations (USVs) during mating, but it is not known how inhaling the helium affects the USVs besides changing the frequency or whether changes in USVs are accompanied by changes in mating behaviors. It is also unknown whether the animal gradually corrects the vocal and behavioral changes after continuously experiencing helium, such as trying to lower the pitch of their voice. Through placing mice in an air-filled or heliox-filled chamber and recording their vocalizations and behavior, this study tests the hypotheses that 1) behavior changes in helium, 2) USVs get shorter and quieter, and 3) the mice show evidence of learning by correcting changes in their USVs. We predict that while inhaling helium, males will display lower proportions of sexually aggressive mating behaviors. Additionally, we predict that the USVs produced during helium sessions will have higher frequencies, lower amplitudes, and have fewer syllables in one bout of vocalizing. Finally, with our current data we do not expect to find evidence of the mice correcting the vocal and behavioral changes. Future studies will continue to research this third hypothesis, which if supported, would have broader implications for the neurobiology behind differentiation of self-produced sounds from external environmental sounds.

Rodent Routine

Each morning, I start my day by becoming an astronaut.

Or at least that’s what I look like after donning the extensive PPE required to enter Bryan Research’s basement mouse colony. I spend about 3 minutes donning a blue full body suit, shoe covers, a hairnet, a face mask, and gloves, for a trip into the mouse room that takes me 30 seconds. Nice. But it’s all so we don’t give the mice our nasty human diseases, which is pretty important. After collecting my six male mice (Fatboy Slim, Tarzan, Pavarotti, King Arthur, Charlie Chaplin, and Big Chunkus, aptly named based on their character), I head back upstairs to the Mooney lab to begin their experimental sessions.

For each of my 12 sessions (6 morning, 6 afternoon), I fill the chamber with either air or heliox and put one of my females in. After placing one of the males in the chamber, I start the webcam and the Spike2 microphone software to record their vocalizations and begin recording their mating behaviors every 10 seconds. When the session is over, I clean the chamber, change out the mice and hope I don’t get bitten, and begin the next session. It’s interesting, some mice are more sexually aggressive and have high proportions of rear sniffing and mounting, whereas some are more like nice guys who prefer to groom the female. Some are great vocalizers (eg. Pavarotti), and some are pretty silent (thanks Charlie Chaplin). All of their individual differences are eventually averaged by my trusty Matlab programs to create exciting sheets of data.

To turn sound files and Excel spreadsheets about behavior into usable data detailing mean pitch per behavior, amplitude per behavior, rate of vocalizing per behavior, and so much more, I start by importing the sound files. A 20 minute sound file takes about 45-50 minutes to convert into a Matlab file, so I import all 12 of the files into Matlab overnight. The next day, I’m able to find out the background noise of the files with the help of another Matlab program that generates spectograms, images of the sound file over a period of 10 seconds. I have to manually select periods of the spectogram where there’s no noise happening except the gentle hum of the air or heliox pumping in. This background noise plus the behavioral data I import gets reviewed by my final program that analyzes the vocalizations in the context of each behavior, subtracts out the background noise, and churns out all of the data I’ll need. After astronauticizing myself once more to return my tired males to the mouse colony, I set up the sound files for importing and breathe a sigh of relief.

That’s a typical day at the lab for me, although I’ve definitely had some bumps in the road. Once, I forgot to close Big Chunkus’ cage all the way after his session was finished. I went to retrieve him for his next session and saw he wasn’t in his cage. After panicking for a good 30 seconds and having the sudden realization that research buildings are probably crawling with lost mice, I opened his cage, only to find him clinging to the ceiling, munching on a pellet of food. I’ve also accidentally left my cage of females wide open, a field day for my particular batch of athletic and adventurous ladies who took the liberty of hopping out and exploring the desk around them. But I’m learning each day and can’t wait to see the final fruits of all this data analysis at the end of the summer and share it with you guys!

Law and Order SVU: How Curiosity Killed the Cat

Everyone did a great job on their chalk talks this past week and I can’t wait to see our completed research projects at our poster presentation!

One talk that particularly interested me was Eleanor’s description of her research on curiosity. Beginning with her description of curiosity as a demand that needed to be satiated, much like hunger, I was hooked. I’d never thought to describe curiosity in that way, but it does make sense. Have you ever had that gnawing feeling inside you when you asked yourself, “What if I …”? Whether you’re curious to see what bungee jumping feels like or what all the soda flavors taste like together in the same cup, you have this impulse inside you inspiring you to just try it and satisfy your curiosity.

Eleanor’s research revolves around cognitive tests with humans where art videos are drawn on a computer screen until they form a recognizable shape. Her central question is whether the level of autonomy participants had in guessing what the shape was determined their level of curiosity, and hypothesizes that this correlation will vary among people with more free or more risk-averse personalities. In the “organic” condition, participants could make an unlimited amount of guesses as to what the shape was. In the “when” condition, time autonomy was removed: the participants were prompted at prescribed times to make a guess. In the “when and what” condition, not only was their time autonomy removed, they weren’t even allowed to make their own guess and were given a guess by the experimenter! Sounds like an unhappy dictatorship to me, and it makes sense that the participants in the “when and what” condition will probably have the lowest levels of curiosity. She hypothesizes that people who identify as more risk-averse will have higher levels of curiosity in the “when” condition than the “organic” condition, but for people who identify as more free and open, the result will be the opposite. I suppose if you’re averse to risk, having to choose when to make a guess can be scary and dampen how much you actually want to make a guess to satisfy your curiosity. What if you guess too early, and risk being WRONG? But if you’re more free and easygoing, why would you want to be constrained by someone else deciding when you need to make a guess? You’re a strong independent woman!

I’ve never really thought about what category of people I fall into, but I suppose I’d consider myself more risk-averse. Having someone else decide what times I should be guessing makes me feel more comfortable: if the experimenters decided that this is a good time to guess, then clearly I should have a better idea of what the shape is at this point, and I’d be more confident making a guess. You learn something new about yourself every day, all thanks to cognitive neuroscience! Thank you Eleanor for sharing your fascinating research and I can’t wait to see where your project takes you!

Try, and fail. And thus you will succeed…

Before Dr. Richard Mooney was the George Barth Geller Professor of Neurobiology at Duke, he was a curious five-year-old who knew he preferred facts to opinions. Speaking to me in his office today, he fondly recalled childhood memories being outdoors, fishing and collecting butterflies and moths. This kindergartner didn’t know the word yet, but he knew he wanted to be a scientist.

In middle and high school, he was fascinated by chemistry (what kid doesn’t love lighting metals on fire and seeing pretty colors?) and even considered a chemistry major at Yale, but he never forgot his childhood love of plants and animals and ultimately chose to major in evolutionary biology. The only subject that ever rivaled Dr. Mooney’s interest in biology was his love of music. Growing up, he had learned classical guitar and often struggled with balancing schoolwork, lab work, exercise (Dr. Mooney was also a track star!), and the time commitment of a musical instrument. Motivated by curiosity coupled with sheer busyness, he wondered how to connect his two interests of music and biology. A musician myself, I faced a similar dilemma in high school and was interested in how Dr. Mooney approached this challenge. He credits two men with helping him start to bridge this gap: Dr. John Trinkaus, an esteemed developmental biologist, and Dr. Alvin Novick.

Dr. Trinkaus was the “master” of the Branford residential college at Yale and ultimately introduced Dr. Mooney to Dr. Novick after learning of his dual interests in music and biology. Dr. Novick studied echolocation in bats, and specifically how bats were able to control the rate of their ultrasonic pips in response to auditory feedback. Sound familiar? If you read my last blog post, you’ll know that one thing the Mooney lab studies is the mechanism by which mice are conscious of their own ultrasonic vocalizations and can control it in response to auditory feedback (eg. hearing a higher pitched version of their voice in helium). The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree! Finally, his two interests had merged into one: the study of audition. But to Dr. Mooney, it wasn’t just their impressive work and helpful mentorship that made Dr. Trinkaus and Dr. Novick inspiring, but also their personalities. Both of these men dared to be different in a much more oppressive world than the one we live in today, and Dr. Mooney admires that “they knew who they were, with no apologies”. He fondly remembers the stories he heard of Dr. Trinkaus’ daring compassion, hospitality, and pure humanity to members of the controversial Black Panther movement and Dr. Novick’s steadfast advocacy for HIV/AIDS prevention and education despite public ridicule. Being a great scientist is respectable, but being an even better person is truly admirable.

After graduating from Yale, Dr. Mooney missed playing the guitar and decided to return to music at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. However, after achieving his goal of performing a solo recital from memorization, he had kind of a, “Now what?” moment. Biology was still calling out to him, and in what he described as a lucky opportunity, he trekked up the hill to UCSF and met Dr. Jim Hudspeth who took him under his wing as a lab technician. Dr. Mooney had been a lab tech before in less stimulating environments, but Dr. Hudspeth was the first PI to provide an environment he could really flourish and learn in. Having a good mentor can go a long way, and Dr. Hudspeth reset Dr. Mooney on the path that would become the rest of his career.

Dr. Mooney completed his PhD at CalTech under Dr. Mark Konishi, an “amazing behaviorist” who had a deep understanding of and love for animals. It was Dr. Konishi that inspired Dr. Mooney to run the lab the way he does now: to let his mentees “sink or swim”, letting them think critically about their own scientific projects without holding their hands. Dr. Konishi summed up this philosophy: “If you succeed in this environment, you’ll be fine. If you fail, you will learn and this is a safe place to do so”. And that leads into Dr. Mooney’s take-home message quite well: “always try, and don’t be afraid to fail. Trial and error is the only way you’ll find out what you really want to do”. It took plenty of tries to eventually land at CalTech with Dr. Konishi, from an unsatisfying lab tech position at Stanford to his classical guitar studies at SFCM. But without these “failures”, he never would’ve been able to narrow down his true career passion. And if my mentioning his many mentors hasn’t hit it home to you yet, Dr. Mooney emphasized the importance of reaching out to mentors and peers and building relationships with people. Not only will they help you bloom as a scientist, they will become wonderful friends for decades to come.

P.S. Pro tip! Want to be a better scientist? Try learning an instrument! Dr. Mooney also believes that musicians make good scientists: besides physical similarities between the two disciplines like fine motor skills, both fields require a keen attention to detail, strong focus, and crucially, a commitment to practice and repetition that won’t always successful. So maybe your mom forcing you to take piano lessons in third grade wasn’t such a bad thing after all.

What does Michael Jackson inhale? HeHelium

Have you ever inhaled helium from a party balloon? Go ahead, admit it. It’s funny, right? You laugh because your voice is so high-pitched, it doesn’t sound like you anymore. Maybe you try to make your voice lower-pitched to counteract the effects of the helium. This is just a fun example, but really we humans are lucky: most of us are able to recognize our own voice and control it accordingly (except males in early puberty, sad!). But how are we able to differentiate between our own voice and others’ voices?

My project is one part of many that seeks to identify the neural circuitry behind recognizing self-produced sounds and differentiating them from the external environment. Since humans are expensive to work with, and there are, yknow, ethical concerns to sticking a single-cell electrode into a human’s brain, my lab works with songbirds and, you guessed it, MICE!

When mice mate, the male releases ultrasonic vocalizations in communication with the female that can only be detected by humans using a software called Spike2 and a very fancy microphone. I put the male and female in a chamber together and either fill the chamber with normal air or heliox, depending on the session and whether the male animal is a control animal or an experimental animal. I then record their mating vocalizations for 20 minutes while coding what specific mating behavior (grooming, rear sniffing, etc) they’re doing every 10 seconds. After running the sound files and behavioral data through Matlab programs, I enter a whole bunch of data into a massive Excel spreadsheet, including the proportion of each behavior per session and mean pitch of the vocalizations per behavior per session.

With my project, I essentially hope to answer two main questions: 1. Do the proportions of the various mating behaviors change significantly when the mice are in heliox as opposed to normal air? 2. For each animal, I record a baseline of 5 sessions in normal air. Then, I run them through 8 sessions in heliox, and finally, 8 sessions in normal air again. Is the mean pitch of the vocalizations in the last 8 air sessions any different from the 5 baseline air sessions? If the mean pitch is lower in the last 8 sessions, does this signal that the mice were trying to purposely lower their voice in the helium sessions, and the habit spilled over to the last 8 air sessions? DO THE MICE HAVE A CONCEPT OF THEIR OWN VOICE? *insert spiderman pointing at spiderman meme* Ongoing work in the lab involves placing electrodes into the mouse brains to record the electrical signals of particular neurons, specifically the neurons involved in the auditory-vocal motor pathway. Demonstrating activity of these connecting cells during vocalizations (with and without helium) will give us insight into the neurobiology behind recognizing and regulating our own voice.

Circling back to the bigger picture of my lab’s research, the ability to distinguish between self-produced sounds and external sounds is something most of us can take for granted. But some of us aren’t so lucky. Individuals with schizophrenia or other mental illnesses with psychosis have trouble differentiating between the voices in their head and real voices of other people. Their ability to recognize self-generated sounds is impeded, and by researching the neural circuitry behind  the connection between auditory and vocal motor areas in mice, we hope to eventually target similar areas in humans.

Mice to meet you all!

Me with Miss Pika! I dyed a lightning bolt on her back!

All terrible puns aside, I’m so excited to be a part of this program and work in Dr. Mooney’s neurobiology lab. Coming into this summer, I had minimal wet lab experience– if you asked me to differentiate a mouse and a rat I would sweat nervously and give you an awkward smile. This past semester, I worked in a psychology lab, which really opened my eyes to the importance of precision in research and the lengthy scientific process. But although psychology research is certainly valuable, I wanted to try something new and push my boundaries. So with my trusty Vans, a heavy backpack, and an open mind, I walked into Dr. Mooney’s lab at 10:30am on Monday, ready to start my scientific journey.

That all sounds really romantic. Truthfully, I was terrified. I had a whole summer of research ahead of me and I had no idea where to start. I was surrounded by machinery, wires, mice and birds, and people buzzing all around me. But Dr. G’s pep talk at the opening breakfast reminded me of my true purpose in the lab: to advance the field of science, and for me to learn. I’ve probably asked a million questions already, and I definitely anticipate asking many more. Fortunately, my postdoc Tom has also been patient and reassuring with me from the beginning. That first day, we had one task: to dye the female mice so we could tell them apart from the male mice, since they’d be in a chamber together. I expected we’d use some high-tech, fancy dye that wasn’t available to the public. This is Duke Neurobiology we’re talking about, right? Serious stuff! So Tom reached into the cabinet and pulled out a box of … Revlon Colorsilk Platinum Blonde. This was the moment I knew that this summer, I will have to expect the unexpected, which is the core of science. A seemingly easy task may turn out to be quite difficult. Some mice might be shy and not vocalize much, not giving us many results to work with. The Matlab programs for data analysis might hit a bug and unexpectedly error out. But at the same time, hard tasks will become easy. Some mice will be great vocalizers, giving us amazing data (thank you, mouse #44!). Sometimes we’ll rewrite some code on a whim, and all of the sudden, the program will run. It sounds cliché, but the beauty of scientific research is not knowing what’ll happen next.

This summer, I can’t wait to experiment with new methods each day, troubleshoot new challenges, and learn as much as I can about the research process and techniques. In five hours on that first day, I learned how to do so much I had never done before. From handling mice for the first time and getting over my uneasiness around animals that aren’t cats or dogs (mice are actually really cute!), to anesthetizing and dyeing the mice, that first day cemented the idea I had thought about for so long: I want to be a scientist.