An essay by Neuroscience concentrator Taylor Shirtliff-Hinds (‘21) has been awarded the 2021 Bowdoin Prize for Undergraduate Essay in the Natural Sciences. Established in 1791, the Bowdoin Prizes celebrate student writing that explores academic topics through an essayistic lens and are one of the oldest prizes awarded by Harvard.
Shirtliff-Hinds’s essay, titled “Troublesome Teenagers: Developing an Experimental Paradigm to Quantify Socially Mediated Alcohol Consumption in Juvenile Mus musculus,” centered on the thesis research she conducted in the Dulac Lab.
“I was not at all expecting to win!” Shirtliff-Hinds says. “I was so overjoyed, surprised, and a bit overwhelmed when I found out I won the Bowdoin Prize! It was really difficult to work in the lab during the pandemic due to COVID occupancy restrictions, and my mentor Dr. Brandon Logeman, my PI Professor Catherine Dulac and I had to re-design the experiments a few times, meaning I only accomplished a fraction of what I had originally planned. Because my thesis didn’t quite meet my own expectations and original goals, it really meant a lot to me for my work to be acknowledged in this way—the prize was a wonderful surprise.”
Postdoc Brandon Logeman of the Dulac Lab served as Shirtliff-Hinds’s lab mentor, providing guidance on experimental design and data analysis. ”What stood out to me is Taylor’s ability to see her work from multiple angles, rather than a myopic view focused on a single aspect,” Logeman says. “She always kept an eyes wide-open perspective.”
MCB faculty and Shirtliff-Hinds’s thesis advisor Catherine Dulac praises Shirtliff-Hinds’s enthusiasm and ability to put her work in context. “For her thesis, Taylor aimed to quantify the behavior of young mice, a project that is quite far from the main question typically studied in my lab,” Dulac says. “Despite all the pandemic constraints and the novelty of her approach,she undertook her project with great passion and made excellent progress: I remember how eager she was to come back to the lab and resume experiments when the lockdown ended…I am extremely happy that she was awarded the Bowdoin Prize.”
In the abstract for her essay, Shirtliff-Hinds breaks down her methodological approach in layman’s terms, writing:
“The common laboratory mouse, Mus musculus, exhibits a myriad of social behaviors that provide unique insight into the complexities of the mammalian social brain. Interestingly, juvenile mice display increased alcohol consumption when interacting with peers, similar to what has been observed in human adolescents. However, the neural circuitry underlying the socially mediated increase in juvenile mice alcohol consumption has not yet been established. Probing these neural pathways first requires establishing an experimental paradigm to quantify alcohol consumption in juvenile and adult mice in the presence or absence of peers. As such, using a custom-built drinking setup, I developed a data analysis pipeline to accurately characterize drinking behavior for individual mice and report behavioral trends over a continuously monitored period. As a positive control, I set up a video camera illuminated by infrared light and manually counted licks at night. In sum, this essay introduces a novel drinking setup and data analysis pipeline to successfully measure mouse liquid consumption over multiple days, thus establishing a protocol for future experiments to examine social risk-taking in juvenile mice.”
These experiments were enabled by prior work at the Center for Brain Science’s Neuroengineering Core. Neuroengineering Core staff Ed Soucy and Brett Graham built the drink-measuring apparatus that Shirtliff-Hinds would later use in her research.
Shirtliff-Hinds says she is thrilled to receive the Bowdoin Prize and adds that she is grateful to Logeman and Dulac. “I really appreciated their guidance, even when I was working remotely in Canada for a large portion of the project!” Shirtliff-Hinds says. “Most importantly, I learned some of the main tenets of being a good researcher because of their leadership.”
She also expressed gratitude to Neuroscience concentration adviser and Assistant Director of Undergraduate Studies in Neuroscience Ryan Draft and her peers who did thesis research in Neuroscience. “We really persevered and were able to help each other through a uniquely challenging process,” she says.
Congratulations to Taylor!