Getting a Jump on Research

Weeks before his first day of classes as a Vassar freshman, Corey DeLay ’20 is hard at work in a biology lab in Olmsted Hall. Under the guidance of Assistant Professor of Biology Kelli Duncan, DeLay is studying the neurochemistry and anatomy of finches that have undergone traumatic brain injury (TBI). Helping a college professor with her research, DeLay says, is a far cry from anything he’s ever done in science before. “I took Advanced Placement courses in chemistry, physics and biology in high school, but we didn’t do much work in the lab,” DeLay says, “so almost all of what I’m doing here is new to me.”

Corey DeLay ’20, a Diving Into Research fellow, with Assistant Professor of Biology Kelli Duncan

DeLay, of Grand Prairie, TX, is one of seven members of the class of 2020 taking part this summer in Vassar’s Diving Into Research program. Now in its seventh year, DIR is designed for first-year students who are traditionally under-represented in the sciences—minorities, those from lower socioeconomic groups and first-generation college students. The students earn a $1,900 stipend for the five-week program, and Vassar pays for their travel and living expenses.

In addition to introducing them to college-level science, the program aims to help these students become acclimated to campus life before their official orientation begins, says Associate Professor of Physics David Bradley, who is overseeing the DIR program this year. “The idea is to create a network for these students with deans and associate deans and professors and others here, so when school starts, they’ll already feel like they are integrated into the fabric of the campus,” Bradley says.

DeLay says he was surprised and pleased at how quickly he felt comfortable, both in the lab with Duncan and elsewhere on campus. “I haven’t taken my first class, but I feel my education has already begun,” he says. “When I was invited to join the program, I wondered how I would measure up, but Kelli has been extremely welcoming. She’s taught me a lot in a short time, and she’s given me the freedom to make some of my own mistakes. I’m on a fast learning curve.”

DeLay is helping Duncan with her ongoing research into head trauma. In recent studies, she says, she has noticed that finches become significantly less social and more aggressive following brain injuries. This is similar to the personality changes observed in people following TBI, Duncan notes. Previous research has shown that the hormone vasopressin is associated with social behaviors in many animal studies, and altered levels of the hormone have been associated with anxiety and aggression. DeLay and Duncan are interested in determining if this hormone plays a role in changing the behavior of finches following TBI. DeLay examined slices of the brain tissue before and after injury to determine if the number of neurons containing vasopressin increased or decreased. Studying this process may lead to the development of drugs that could aid in the healing of humans who have undergone head injuries. 

Examining tissue samples under the microscope

Duncan says it didn’t take DeLay long to grasp the techniques she uses in the lab for her research. ”Five weeks is a short turnaround time for scientific research, but Corey has been amazing,” she says. “On his first day, I had him read some background material and explained the basis of my research,” Duncan says. “He immediately asked me some great questions, and I knew I had a good research partner.”

DeLay says he had to learn how to use the microscope (“I’d used microscopes before, but nothing as sophisticated as the one here,” he says) and how to use software that enables the microscope to project images on a computer screen, as well as other lab tasks that were totally new to him. “Sometimes, I hit snags, but all of science is trial and error,” he says. “I feel really lucky to be doing this work because I want to major in neuroscience, and I’ve been given the opportunity to study brain chemistry right off the bat.”

DeLay says he’s also enjoying social activities—including weekly barbecues and a trip to a minor league baseball game—Bradley and the rest of the DIR faculty mentors have planned for the DIR students along with other students who are on campus this summer. In addition, each DIR student is assigned a mentor  to answer their questions and address their concerns. “Being here for these five weeks has definitely acclimated me, so I don’t have to absorb everything during the rush of orientation with 660 of my classmates,” he says. “I’m totally comfortable here and ready to start my college career.”

—Larry Hertz

Photos: Buck Lewis

Posted by Office of Communications Monday, August 8, 2016