Centre News

Science students and professor receive research grants

February 11, 2010 By Leigh Ivey
Summer research Dr. Melissa Burns-Cusato (far left), who has recently received a
grant for a research project about the aging process, is advising
student grant winner Emily Gregory '11 in her project involving
Japanese Quail. Last summer, Burns-Cusato supervised several
students who conducted similar research.

Emily Gregory's summer research Emily Gregory '11 (right) and Amanda Glueck '10 spent last
summer doing research on campus. Here, they pose with "Big
Bird," their favorite bird from the summer project.

Two Centre students and one Centre professor have recently received research grants from the Kentucky Academy of Science.

Nina Marijanovic '10 of Bowling Green, Ky., has received a grant for her research project entitled, "The effects of touch and note [touching a customer's shoulder and writing 'thank you' on the bill] on the tipping behavior in restaurants." Emily Gregory '11 of Louisville has received a grant to continue her project entitled, "Parent-offspring recognition in Japanese Quail."

Of the 18 students (both undergraduate and graduate students) who applied for the KAS grants, only seven received one—and Marijanovic and Gregory alone received funds for undergraduate study.

In addition, Centre assistant professor of psychology Dr. Melissa Burns-Cusato received a research grant for her project titled, "The aging process: Analyses of aging from a cellular, systemic and behavioral perspective."

Because this is the first grant Gregory had ever written, "it was definitely a learning process," she says. "My advisor, Dr. Burns-Cusato, was a huge part of the whole process. I was really blessed to receive the funding and am really excited about all the prolactin hormone we'll be able to buy with it!"

This hormone will be used in her upcoming research, which involves "trying to find the mechanisms of parent-offspring recognition, whether it be genetic or social experience," Gregory says.

To do so, Gregory selects pairs of quail that she mates and collects eggs from. Then, when the chicks hatched from these eggs are three days old, she puts them through a 10-minute "preference test, where they are allowed to chose between their mother and an unrelated bird." The mothers are put through the same preference test.

"Since we think that parental care may play a role in parent-offspring kin recognition, this semester I'm injecting the birds with the hormone prolactin in hopes of inducing parental care in the quail."

Prolactin, Gregory explains, is a hormone that induces parental behaviors such as incubation, egg-laying and nurturing newborn chicks.

"If we can get the mothers to display these behaviors like they do naturally in the wild," she says, "we hope that the chicks and the mothers will be able to recognize each other in a preference test."

Marijanovic also has plans to put her grant funds to good use. Working under the loose supervision of assistant professor of psychobiology Dr. KatieAnn Skogsberg, she will be conducting further research on a project that was inspired by her own experiences as a server in a restaurant.

"Nina noticed that different habits of different servers seemed to garner different tips," Skogsberg says. "But she wasn't sure what exactly the explanatory variable was. So she has designed an experiment to empirically test whether it's the servers or their behaviors that influences how big their tips are."

Having waited tables for the past three summers, Marijanovic says that "working with those who have had more experience in the field helps you pick up on some of the cues they use to boost their tips. You can also learn how they become friendly with the customers."

To discover "what sort of non-threatening gestures a server can use in order to increase the tip percentage per night," Marijanovic has arranged to have several different servers at various restaurants in the area behave in various ways to see how this influences the size of the tips received.

"The manipulations that the servers will be using are very subtle," Skogsberg says, "so it's not likely the patrons will notice them as 'obvious.'"

These manipulations include briefly touching a customer's shoulder and writing "thank you" on the bill, both of which Marijanovic thinks will increase the size of the waiters' tips.

Skogsberg says that she encouraged Marijanovic to pursue the experiment and to apply for the grant.

"I knew she would put together a solid application and that she could hold her own against any other undergraduate application," Skogsberg says. "She's done the majority of the work on this project on her own; she took the initiative, put in the time and effort, and used her outstanding planning and organizational skills. As a result, she was able to put together a very concrete and well thought-out experiment that deserved to be funded."

Centre students and professors often collaborate on research projects, which is one way of providing the "personal education" the College guarantees its students. Professors are eager to guide students in any way, something that does not go unappreciated by the students.

"I know that my type of research isn't really up Dr. Skogsberg's alley—she's more computer- and brain-oriented—but I admire the fact that she's stepped out of her comfort zone and has agreed to help with this kind of research," Marijanovic says. "I think we're both expanding our minds."

Having worked closely with Burns-Cusato for her project, Gregory also knows the value of the personal education Centre professors offer their students.

"I really enjoy working with Dr. Burns-Cusato," Gregory says. "She's been such an amazing resource. One of the things about doing research at Centre is that you definitely get your own say in your project, but professors are always there to guide you and help you see different ideas that you may not have thought about."

To read more about other research projects in which Centre students and professors have collaborated, click here.

Have comments, suggestions, or story ideas? E-mail leigh.ivey@centre.edu with your feedback.

Founded in 1819, Centre College is ranked among the U.S. News top 50 national liberal arts colleges. Consumers Digest ranks Centre No. 1 in educational value among all U.S. liberal arts colleges. Centre alumni, known for their nation-leading loyalty in annual financial support, include two U.S. vice presidents and two Supreme Court justices.
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