Summer Living in Woods Hole, MA: MBL and the Grass Lab

The primary focus of research in the Kittelberger lab is the singing behavior of the plainfin midshipman fish. The plainfin midshipman uses this singing in order to attract females for courtship; using their swim bladder muscles, the midshipman creates its song by vibrating its inflated swim bladder and producing a humming sound. In the past, Dr. Kittelberger has looked at things such as the role of periaqueductal gray, a midbrain structure involved in vocal production across vertebrates, in vocal patterning, and the potential role of dopamine in shaping vocal and social behaviors in midshipman. Currently, we’re investigating the possible involvement of a region in the far back of the brain and along the spinal chord, the supra-medullary nucleus, in this behavior. We’re currently doing immunohistochemistry stains in order to identify which neurons are active during vocalization. What this means is that we react brain slices with specific antibodies that bind to a protein that is expressed in active neurons. Through this series of reactions, we end up with fluorescent proteins bound to the areas of the brain sections that were active during singing, indicating their involvement in vocalization. Our hope is that these supra-medullary neurons will ‘light up’ when fish hum, but not when they are engaged in other behaviors, such as listening to other fish. We’ll thus be able to have some indication that these neurons are involved in vocalization. This is interesting because of the elusive nature of the supra-medullary neurons in fish. Little is known about this region of the fish brain, and even less is known about its function. Previous work in other fish species has suggested that the supra-medullary nucleus may be involved in the production of protective mucus on the skin surface, and the sensation of stimuli – such as touch – that trigger mucus production. Thus a role for this brain area in vocalization would be novel, and could, for example, be related to the presence of pheromones in mucus being released when the fish sing. This is obviously an intriguing idea, as pheromones could play an interesting role in the olfactory side of mate attraction and courtship.

In addition to the research being done in the Kittelberger lab, there is plenty of excitement around the Grass Lab, our home for the summer. Dr. Kittelberger is Co-director of the Grass Lab at the Marine Biology Lab in Woods Hole, MA. Founded by Ellen Grass, the Grass foundation is responsible for the creation and funding of the Grass Lab, where early-career investigators are provided an unparalleled opportunity to develop and conduct independent neuroscience research projects within the expansive and prestigious scientific community of the Marine Biological Laboratory, Woods Hole, MA. This year, there are eleven Grass Fellows who were afforded this opportunity. Some of them graduate students, some postdocs; the Grass fellows come from various backgrounds and fields within neuroscience. From innovating the research method of optogenetics to further understanding the inherent properties of hair cells, the projects being done in the Grass lab provide a great atmosphere of well-rounded diversity. In addition to all that can be learned from the research and fellows in the Grass lab, the MBL offers graduate courses year round, which include weekly public talks, socials, and other events. No only is this a great way to network and meet many accomplished scientists, but it is also a way to have fun and enjoy life here at the MBL.
*A special thanks to the Grass Foundation and the MBL for hosting us, and for providing me with this great opportunity to experience academic and professional diversity and excellence. *

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