Graduate explores degree of neuronal responses

Anne Kennedy
Staff Writer

Torrey Lyn Salmon Truszkowski ‘12, a Ph.D. candidate at Brown University, returned to The University to present her research Friday. While at The University, Truszkowski majored in neuroscience and was a member of the honors program. She is currently studying multi sensory processing.

Truszkowski’s research centers around how the brain finds out about the world. We use our five senses to tell us about the world. These five senses send information to our brain, which processes the information and responds to it. While scientists know a lot about what happens when one sense sends information to the brain, they know less about what happens when more than one sense sends information at the same time.

For example, you can both see and hear a bee flying near flowers; both your eyes and your ears are relaying information back to your brain. Truszkowski is trying to see what happens in your brain when it integrates both types of information.
She began her research by knowing that there are neurons — specialized cells in the nervous system that can send messages throughout the body — that can respond to more than one sense. These cells live in the brainstem, and the response of the cell depends on how salient (how important) the stimulus is.

Truszkowski and the researchers with whom she works determined that neurons respond to stimuli based on the principle of inverse effectiveness. This means that when two small stimuli are combined, the neuron responds with a large response. However, when two large stimuli are combined, the neuron does not respond with a proportionately larger response. Thus, the difference between stimulus size and response size is smaller with a large stimulus than with a smaller stimulus.

Using tadpoles as a model, Truszkowski examined different levels of stimulus response. She looked at behavior responses using the whole organism, and she looked at the cellular response by examining the neurons themselves. In both cases, she determined the same thing: a lower-saliency combination of stimuli results in a greater response than a high-saliency combination of stimuli.

After talking about her research, Truszkowski spent some time discussing graduate school and what she plans on doing after she finishes graduate school. She pointed out that there are many options for new doctorate holders, not just careers in academia. One option she is looking at is working to improve the perceptions of science and scientists by increasing scientific literacy and education. Another avenue she is considering is using her scientific knowledge and abilities to help inform public policy.

A final avenue she is thinking about is scientific diplomacy: using science to facilitate or improve relations between countries.

She explains that she wants to “make real change, and be the person who changes the world.”
Truszkowski encouraged those considering a career in research to gain experience and find a good research advisor. She explained that the topic of one’s research does not matter as much as the person with whom one conducts research with. She cites her advisor, Carlos Aizenman Ph.D., as an example of a supportive advisor who allowed her to pursue her research goals and her interests in using science to change the world. When asked what students should consider when applying to graduate school, Truszkowski responded, “If you’re thinking about a Ph.D., that’s something you need – a supportive advisor.”

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