You Decide What You Want to Discover:
Biology Major Interns at Scripps Laboratory

Song GaoAs a summer intern at Scripps Florida, Caitlin Gavin discovered a passion for research, even though her frequent companions were laboratory rats—the subjects of experiments involving memory and the brain.

“I had to handle them so they would be used to human contact,” said Gavin, a biology major and junior at the college who worked as an assistant to Courtney Miller, Ph.D., assistant professor at the Department of Metabolism and Aging at Scripps Florida, a biomedical research facility in Jupiter, Florida. The facility is a division of the nonprofit Scripps Research Institute.

Miller’s laboratory is working toward understanding the neurobiological underpinnings of memory disorders. Her research focuses on the contribution of epigenetic mechanisms to health issues such as drug addiction and age-related memory decline.

The goal is to develop therapies for degenerative brain conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. Among other experiments that Gavin assisted with, one was studying how cocaine affects memory formation and future behavior. Some of the rats were given cocaine.

“Nobody knows how memory works as far as how it is stored and how it changes,” Gavin said. “We were looking at physical changes in the brain, what type of memory, how does it encode, why is one long-term and one short-term?”

Gavin hopes that Miller will include her data in a paper for publication. Gavin plans to present some of her own findings at NSU’s Undergraduate Student Symposium, hosted by the Farquhar College of Arts and Sciences, in April 2011.

Working in the Scripps lab convinced Gavin that science is in her future.

“[Scripps Florida] has a lot of resources, which allowed me to do the best work I could do…I was on the fence as to whether I wanted to do science,” said Gavin, who now plans to attend graduate school and work toward a doctoral degree. “But, doing research is actually fun, and you decide what you want to discover. Being in the lab was not like being in class, where you follow a set procedure. Here, you’re in control of what you do because no one else has done it before. You feel like you’re doing something of purpose rather than doing an experiment that someone else has done a thousand times before.

“These scientists are discovering things every day, and they’re writing the textbooks for the next generation. It’s definitely exciting.”

Internships provide unique opportunities for students to learn outside the classroom. The internship at Scripps Florida was coordinated by Mark Jaffe, D.P.M., associate professor in the college’s Division of Math, Science, and Technology. Students who are interested in participating should contact Jaffe at mjaffe@nova.edu.

“Students who return from innovative experiences such as an internship or independent study are more mature and focused than they were before they began the experience,” Jaffe said. “In addition to broadening their horizons, the students often develop relationships with professionals and other students at the other institutions that can last a lifetime. These experiences can be life-changing.”