Getting paid to learn: Summer research interns tackle science of addiction

| Denise Olson

All too often, a story that combines the topics of college students and alcohol does not end well. It could be a tale about excessive drinking, a party that became out of control, an injury or worse.

This is not one of those stories. This story is about college students who seek to reduce the detrimental impact of alcohol and other drugs on individuals and society.

It is a story that ends well, promise.

Three Blugold women will be spending their 2019 summer months researching the science behind addiction and alcoholism, looking for answers about patterns, genetic factors and possibly effective treatments for a pernicious public health problem.

Nuerosceince majors in the lab

Amelia Schneider, Samantha Scaletty and Abbey Kastner in the Wisconsin Addiction Research Lab

Amelia Schneider, Abbey Kastner and Samantha Scaletty, all neuroscience majors, have been offered paid summer internships funded through programs supported by the National Institutes of Health.

Kastner and Schneider will both be research interns at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston, with internships provided by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). Scaletty will be conducting research at the University of Illinois at Urbana, which is a program affiliated with the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA).

All three of these students belong to the first cohort of neuroscience majors who will graduate from this new program at UW-Eau Claire, and all have been conducting ongoing research with Dr. Doug Matthews in his addiction research laboratory.

Doug Matthews

Dr. Doug Matthews, professor and chair of psychology

“The NIH funding these campuses receive provides grant opportunities for undergraduate researchers. For a 10-week period, the interns will attend lectures and professional development sessions, and work alongside the principle investigators running the various laboratories affiliated with the research areas,” said Matthews, professor and chair of the psychology department at UW-Eau Claire.

“These internships are highly competitive, offering unique avenues to develop research skills and enhance postgraduate opportunities for our students. They are also some of the rare paid internships, providing a paycheck and housing stipend, so interns can focus on the learning experience.”

Scaletty, who will be working as a lab technician under Dr. Nu Chu Liang at the Urbana campus, is grateful for her current lab experience which helped make her an excellent candidate. The junior from Appleton looks forward to expanding her research beyond the alcohol-specific lab work she has been conducting thus far.

“Working in the UWEC lab is definitely the thing that has prepared me the most for this internship, and it is also what gave me the skills I needed to stand out as an applicant,” she said. “I am most excited to be able to work with drugs other than alcohol. I’m not sure which drugs we will be using in experiments, but I can’t wait to see the neurological effects they have.”

Both Kastner and Schneider will be furthering the depth of their research specific to alcohol and its effects as their internships in Charleston will be funded by NIAAA.

“I have attended the Research Society on Alcoholism conference the past two years with Dr. Matthews and individuals from our laboratory to present the research. This conference introduces us to public speaking and how to present yourself in front of the most highly accomplished addiction researchers in the country,” said Kastner, a junior from Hartford.

She points to Matthews as the most influential factor in both her selection of UW-Eau Claire and the neuroscience major.

“During my first few weeks at UWEC, I met with Dr. Matthews as a biology major and neuroscience minor wanting to go to medical school to become a neurosurgeon,” Kastner said. “Now, three years later, I am one of his lab managers and a neuroscience major aspiring to attend graduate school in neuropharmacology. His guidance and support both in and out of the laboratory has made me a stronger person and scientist.”

Amelia Schneider, a senior neuroscience major from Cottage Grove, Minnesota, is excited to experience the day-to-day work flow of a professional researcher in the field of addiction studies, her planned career path.

“It’s a great opportunity to get a firsthand look at the large-scale research that is done on the effects of alcohol. Alcohol and drugs of abuse is what I intend to study in my future, so I'll have what a day-to-day experience is in this career path modeled for me,” Schneider said.

Schneider also cited the Research Society on Alcoholism annual conference as an essential component of her growth in academic and professional ways.

“I've had the opportunity to present my research at this national conference and speak to some of the most expert researchers in the field. It was at RSA where I met Dr. Patrick Mulholland and Dr. Jennifer Rinker who I will be working with this summer,” she said. “Through this connection with them, I was able to score one of the first openings in MUSC's summer research positions when I applied.”

Despite different internship details and purposes, all three of these hard-working researchers will share the high-impact experiential learning and professional networking that can help establish strong careers. In addition, the personal growth that these opportunities bring both culturally and academically will likely prove to be life-changing.

Since neuroscience is a field of study that combines elements of biology, chemistry, psychology, statistics and philosophy, a natural outcome is a broad-based set of critical thinking skills that encourages students to consider multiple angles of a complex issue such as addiction, a concept well summed up by Scaletty.

“This wide spectrum has been the most helpful aspect to me and has made me more curious about science in general. The more knowledge you have, the more questions you are able to ask and hopefully someday answer.”

For more information about the neuroscience major at UW-Eau Claire, contact Dr. Doug Matthews at matthedb@uwec.edu. For more information about his ongoing collaborative research with students, visit the Wisconsin Addiction Research Laboratory website.

Top image caption: Neuroscience majors Amelia Schneider, Abbey Kastner and Samantha Scaletty have spent several semesters working in the Wisconsin Addiction Research Laboratory where they have developed the technical and analytical skills to fit right in at R1 institutions this summer at paid NIH-funded internships.