July 11, 2018

VSU Psychology Professors Launch Lab to Investigate Animal Learning and Behavior

Dr. Joshua Rodefer (left) and Dr. Blaine Browne in VSU's new Behavioral Biology Lab.

VALDOSTA — Valdosta State University has launched a new science laboratory to investigate the cognitive effects of drugs and environmental factors in invertebrates while also offering students valuable research opportunities in the field of animal neuroscience.

The Behavioral Biology Lab — created and led by Dr. Joshua Rodefer, assistant professor of psychology, and Dr. Blaine Browne, associate professor of psychology — examines how invertebrates react to substances such as alcohol, caffeine, and pesticides. It also studies how the animals respond to external factors, such as air conditions and the textures of various objects.

The main goal is to observe how such factors affect the learning and memory capabilities of the animals as well as certain aspects of their behavior, such as movement patterns and residual habits.

Rodefer and Browne are currently studying crickets and earthworms, two species of invertebrates that are affordable and allow the Behavioral Biology Lab to run at low cost and low maintenance. But the two professors said their research carries implications for other species, including humans.

“My training is in psychopharmacology and drug abuse,” Rodefer said. “You might say, ‘What do crickets have to do with drug abuse?’ The short answer is learning in insects is fundamentally the same learning that you see in mammals and in humans. So if we understand problems in insects and worms, that can help us understand learning in humans, especially in regards to drug addiction.”

“Also, measures of how pesticides and other environmental factors influence the learning of animals — such as various species of worms as well as insects — has a direct impact on whether they can successfully survive and reproduce,” Browne added. “These animals also have a direct impact on plant and crop survival, which ultimately affects humans since we rely on them.”

The Behavioral Biology Lab allows psychology and pre-med majors to gain practical experience as research assistants, and students have the option to receive academic credit for their work.

“One of VSU’s main goals is to provide experiential learning opportunities for students, and this lab is a perfect example of that,” Browne said. “Getting your hands in it and actually doing this work is much different than just reading about something.

“For students who want to go into doctoral programs, this lab is a great fit because those programs are so competitive and they really want you to have done research at the undergraduate level.”

The lab also allows students to receive one-on-one mentoring from faculty. 

“Teaching science and teaching students how to be critical thinkers, how to appreciate science, how to understand the scientific method and what it tells us is an important aspect of what we do as psychology professors,” Rodefer said.

“In the lab, students get to be involved with everything, including formulating the project in the beginning, running the project, completing the project, and then participating in the analysis and write-up of the project.”

Jalen Norris, a pre-med psychology major from Suwanee, Georgia, who expects to graduate in Fall 2019, said his recent experience in the Behavioral Biology Lab as a research assistant was liberating.

“This is the first hands-on research I have ever done,” he said. “I felt free because I was controlling it myself. Dr. Browne wasn’t behind me looking at what I was doing. He had trust in me in running the experiments and copying down the results. 

“I learned a lot about procedure. That’s the main reason why I wanted to do research. I wanted to understand it. I wanted to know the process of it and how to present it.”

The Behavioral Biology Lab, located in Converse Hall, Room 3201, was launched with financial assistance from VSU’s Faculty Research Seed Grant Program, an internal funding program that supports faculty research and creative activity in the furtherance of the scholarly mission of the university.

Contact Dr. Joshua Rodefer at jsrodefer@valdosta.edu or Dr. Blaine Browne at blbrowne@valdosta.edu to learn more.

On the Web: