Written by Jackie Wirz, Ph.D.
There are many things that inspire me here at OHSU; most recently, I’ve been utterly amazed by the social behavior of drunk prairie voles.
Okay, a little clarification is needed here: I recently had the privilege of attending the dissertation defense of Allison Anacker, a Behavioral Neuroscience Graduate Program student. I have written before about the amazing scholarship that our students produce, specifically in the form of the blue-bound theses and dissertations that line one wall of the OHSU Library.
These works are incredible snapshots of the pain and suffering learning and growth that are the foundation of any graduate degree. As fantastic as these volumes are, if you prefer live action over the written word, I would highly recommend attending a thesis defense in person. You’ll get an excellent overview of their major scientific accomplishments, as well as a deeper insight into the personality of the individual, their lab and their PI.
I have had the privilege of knowing Allison for two years, working with her on the Student Research Forum and the inaugural OHSU Research Week event. Despite our close working relationship on things like organizing judging forms and reviewing abstracts, my understanding of her area of research was pretty low. I knew that it involved prairie voles, but not much beyond that. When she invited me to her thesis defense, I jumped at the chance to hear exactly what these prairie voles were up to.
As is tradition, all theses defense talks start with an introduction by the student’s Primary Investigator. Professor Andrey Ryabinin mentored Allison during her graduate career, and his introduction clearly demonstrated both his sense of humor and his deep respect for Allison’s academic ambitions and achievements.
He briefly showed a list of Allison’s publications which was long enough to justify tiny font. Then he showed a list of her awards, which had to be written in even tinier text. (As inspired as I am by her prodigious academic output, I’m also going to have to put some money aside for therapy as I am feeling pretty inadequate in comparison!) Putting aside the strictly scientific view, he also touched on her career path to OHSU, her deep commitment to her family and, most importantly, included many photos and stories of Allison that were sincere and hilarious all at once.
But what of the drunken prairie voles? The complex ties between social behavior and alcohol cannot easily be studied using your average animal models: Allison’s scientific research has focused on developing and using a prairie vole model for alcohol behavior studies. Mouse and primate models are used at OHSU, and we also have research groups that work on animals as varied as chickens, zebrafish, frogs and moths. Despite my many years on this campus, this was the first talk I’ve attended that involved voles.
This particular animal system was set up and characterized by Allison and the Ryabinin lab in part because these animals can drink large quantities of alcohol, and their social behavior is well characterized. Specifically, prairie voles form pair bonds that are strong and stable lifelong relationships. Allison’s work to create, characterize and use this animal model for alcohol research is unique and valuable: using pair-bonded prairie voles, her work clearly demonstrates that social interactions influence alcohol drinking behavior in a variety of scenarios. For more details, check out her publications here.
One aspect of her seminar that I found particularly interesting was her thank you slide – like most scientists, she works with researchers both internal and external to OHSU. In a particularly striking example of collaboration, Allison used her Tartar Trust Fellowship to hire a Department of Medical Informatics and Epidemiology graduate student to write code for part of her research project.
Her willingness to work with students and experts outside her field of expertise to further her research objectives is a sign of exceptional maturity and teamwork in science – I believe that Allison’s research exemplifies the new paradigm of collaborative research that bridges disciplines to further our collective scientific understanding. Although I am sad to see her go (she will be assuming a postdoctoral position at Smith College this winter), I know she will continue to do amazing things in behavioral neuroscience and beyond. Good luck, Dr. Anacker!
Jackie Wirz is an Assistant Professor and the Biomedical Sciences Information Specialist at the Oregon Health & Science University Library. She earned her Ph.D. from Oregon Health & Science University in Biochemistry & Molecular Biology and has a B.S. from Oregon State University in Biochemistry & Biophysics. Her research career has spanned 15 years and has covered diverse topics such as transcriptional regulation, macromolecular structure determination, collagen biophysics and DNA repair. Her professional interests include information, data, and knowledge management, as well as the publishing paradigms of scientists.
Additionally, Jackie is a strong proponent of science outreach and volunteers with a variety of programs designed to promote scientific literacy. Jackie believes in evolution, salted caramel buttercream and Jane Eyre.