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Investing in Research

From left, junior Jordan Weiser, senior Mackenzie Riggenbach and Phillip Zoladz, Ohio Northern University associate professor of psychology.

Over the past three years, the National Institutes of Health have awarded ONU researchers more than $1 million in grants.

An estimated 5 percent of Americans (more than 13 million people) deal with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), an often-undertreated disorder that develops in people who have experienced a traumatic event. Thanks to a prestigious grant, Ohio Northern is poised to conduct research to better understand this disorder and, hopefully, help those who suffer from it.

Phillip Zoladz, ONU associate professor of psychology, recently received a $418,620 grant from the National Institute of Mental Health for the project “Stress, sex and the generalization of fear.” The project began Dec. 1, 2018, and will continue for three years. It also offers an invaluable experience for ONU students.

“ONU students will be involved in all aspects of the research, such as running participants through experimental sessions, scoring physiological and behavioral data, and analyzing the results,” says Zoladz. “I expect the students to also present their findings at professional conferences as the study unfolds and to help me prepare manuscripts for professional journals at the conclusion of the project.”

Mackenzie RiggenbachFor senior psychology major Mackenzie Riggenbach, the head research assistant in Zoladz’s laboratory, being part of research like this is a great jumping off point for her career. She plans to pursue a doctoral degree in cognitive psychology after graduating from ONU. Her experience in lab operations and research puts her at an advantage and will help make her dream a reality.

“Being involved in this lab has provided me with the necessary skills to run a research lab while in graduate school,” she says. “I am interested in this area of research regarding stress effects on learning and memory because it is extremely applicable to the real world. Everyone experiences some form of stress throughout the day. Thus, it is interesting to investigate how stress can impact an individual’s ability to learn and remember information.”

Fellow student Jordan Weiser, a junior psychology major, is also thankful for the opportunity to be part of Zoladz’s research, something she knows is not common in an undergraduate setting elsewhere. She plans to pursue a doctoral degree in either psychology or neuroscience and then become a college professor.

I am getting a lot of unique experiences that, from my understanding, not all undergraduate psychology programs offer,” she says. “I feel that my research experience has not only helped me build a competitive graduate school application, but also prepared me very well for the real world of research in the field. I feel very comfortable stepping into a graduate-level research setting and applying the skills I have acquired here, which is something not everyone coming out of undergraduate programs can say.

Jordan WeiserFear generalization is at the center of the project.

“Fear generalization occurs when an individual learns to fear one stimulus and subsequently exhibits fear in response to other, similar stimuli,” Zoladz says. “This is an adaptive process because it allows an individual to generalize fear to novel stimuli that may present a threat to survival. However, it can become maladaptive if the fear is overgeneralized. For instance, a military veteran with PTSD might fear gunshot sounds for a very rational reason on the battlefield, but he or she might overgeneralize that fear to sounds such as cars backfiring or fireworks in civilian life, resulting in a hypervigilance that impairs daily functioning.”

The research is being conducted in collaboration with Emory University researchers, and consultants from Emory will be on campus in January, prior to the beginning of the actual tests.

This is not Zoladz’s first research grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). In 2015, Zoladz was awarded a grant from NIH for a project examining the physiological and genetic correlates of stress effects on learning and memory. Then, in 2016, Zoladz helped obtain a grant from NIH to examine the influence of chronic stress on heart function in an animal model of PTSD. With this new grant from NIH, in a little more than a three-year period, Zoladz has helped bring more than $1.25 million of external funding to ONU in support of stress-related research.

Phillip Zoladz“My research is focused on developing a better understanding of PTSD at a basic science level. I’m interested in understanding the physiological and behavioral factors that increase one’s susceptibility to develop the disorder following trauma exposure,” Zoladz says. “The study of PTSD has always fascinated me. Complex biological and psychological factors underlie the disorder, and the available treatment options for PTSD patients are inadequate. If we can gain a better understanding of some of the basic physiological and behavioral correlates of PTSD, it could lead to better treatments in the future.”