It seems like a normal Friday morning in Muhammad Spocter’s neuroanatomy lab. Students are in their seats, intently listening to Spocter’s instructions before delving into the day’s objective: floating tiny tissue samples in slides to later be stained and analyzed as part of the group’s research into the canid brain. But one thing stands out in this class: the faces are far fresher than your typical crop of first-year students.
Since 2012, Spocter, Ph.D., has taught this spring neuroanatomy course to local high school students. Ten students from Des Moines Central Campus come to DMU for an hour every other day for an in-depth research experience.
“We give high school students the opportunity to work within our lab on research projects with real data, allowing them to get exposure in STEM fields,” says Spocter, assistant professor and director of the anatomy program. “They’re a self-selected group of students who are interested in these types of careers, and we challenge them.”
Central Campus was a natural partner, and not just because of its convenient location a mile down Grand Avenue. Highly motivated students from all over central Iowa travel to the school for college-level classes not offered at their home schools and for unique programs in the culinary arts, fashion design, nursing and other areas. The neuroanatomy students are recruited from the anatomy and biotechnology classes taught by Kacia Cain, a longtime DMU collaborator.
“It’s so cool; it’s so amazing! Who gets to do brain research at a medical school when they’re in high school?” Cain exclaims. “They get that complete feeling of being immersed in that environment. They learn really valuable research skills.”
The students also receive college credit through Des Moines Area Community College and develop skills that translate to future medical school courses and STEM careers. The research experience will help them earn scholarships and can later be added to their CVs to land other research opportunities.
“Many of the tools we teach them are designed for the graduate level. Some of the lectures I give them are the same ones I give to the graduate students. I ask them to perform at that level, and they can do so,” says Spocter. “They also act as very good foot soldiers for me. It might seem incremental, but they are all contributing toward the Canine Brain Project, which is the central research question in my lab.”
“Dogs are the new chimps”
Chimpanzees are our closest living relatives and have the intelligence to complete a number of tasks we once thought only humans could do. But over the last decade, research into canine brains and behavior has exploded, shedding new light onto the unique characteristics of our closest companions. It turns out there’s a surprising amount of intelligence hidden behind those puppy-dog eyes.
“Dogs are the new chimps. Because they’ve shared a long cohabitation with humans, dogs intuitively understand that there is some information you are trying to impart to them,” Spocter says. “The ability to follow gaze and to see the white sphere of the eye – not all species have that. Humans and dogs do.
“There have not been enough people looking at the great changes that have coincided with domestication,” he adds. “What changes occurred in the brain that allowed for this change in behavior? What are the implications of this work on understanding the human condition? It’s one of the areas where evolutionary science has not been covered completely.”
For a researcher interested in issues of domestication, Spocter is in the right place. Domesticated animals far outnumber humans in Iowa. He acquires specimens from all over the state, including the recent donation of a wallaby brain from the Blank Park Zoo. The variety of specimens contribute to the research in his Evolving Brain Laboratory, which studies large-brained social animals — not just dogs — and uses the research to better understand humans.
Every tissue sample is analyzed and cataloged in the Comparative Neuroanatomy Brain Bank, a virtual histology database that serves as a valuable educational and research resource for students and scientists. The neuroanatomy students contribute to the work on that.
“This sharing is an important aspect of the field. As a scientist working in Africa, many times we didn’t have access to a certain piece of equipment or particular technique,” Spocter says. “To have those databases online for other people to use, that’s a big part of our outreach. It can help other researchers tie it into their own research questions. It gives it a lifeline beyond my own research so others can piece together how we fit into the animal kingdom and how these specific animals fit into that network.”
Sparking an interest in science
Most scientists can pinpoint the exact moment when their passion for science began to burn. For Kathleen Bitterman, research assistant in anatomy and co-facilitator of the neuroanatomy class, it was a trip to a medical facility with her mother as part of her volunteer work with March of Dimes. Seeing the remarkable care given to vulnerable patients ignited an interest in biomedical science. The hope is that the Canine Brain Project does the same for the Central Campus students, creating a host of future researchers and health professionals.
“A few of them want to go to medical school. For those who are unsure, it’s a foundation of knowledge. It can be just one thing they learn that sticks with them that helps determine what kind of career they want to pursue. That’s important to me,” says Bitterman. “We offer an opportunity for discovery. To have that inquisitive mind throughout your whole life – that’s what I want to pass on to the students.”
That opportunity is expanding for six to eight of the neuroanatomy students. Thanks to a $20,000 Verizon Foundation grant awarded to Des Moines Public Schools, the course will continue into the fall semester. Juniors currently enrolled in the course will have the chance to carry out their own projects, contributing to Spocter’s ongoing research on the canid brain. They will then have the opportunity to present their research at science conferences.
“To see these students get this kind of opportunity, it’s so exciting. This allows them to really excel at a pace that’s above and beyond what you think a high school student would be able to do,” Cain says. “I just feel so blessed that they chose Central Campus and me to be involved in this project, because it’s such an opportunity for the kids.”