When Matt Leopold '11 e-mailed various departments in search of a job, he wasn't quite expecting to receive a reply requesting someone with "enough common sense to take care of rats."

Though it is known for the Writing Project and psychology department, Kanbar Hall is also home to 36 lab rats.

"When I responded, I thought it was going to be a 10-minute interview, but then I found myself in [the basement] for a few hours doing 10 rat [cage] changes," said Leopold.

Leopold is in charge of cleaning the rats' cages once or twice a week and feeding them once per day. Twenty students from Neuroscience 276, Laboratory in Behavioral Neuroscience: Learning and Memory, and five other students also work with the rats.

Assistant Professor of Psychology Seth Ramus oversees the lab.

"It's a core neuroscience lab; I bring the entire class into my research laboratory and take them from conception through publication," said Ramus. "This allows students to experience real research. They learn how to do neurosurgery; they learn how to do behavioral testing and data analysis. For their final project, they prepare a manuscript."

Ramus has been conducting this course for the eight years that he has been at the College.

"I originally started this class and knew it was lab-based, but didn't know [much more than that]," said class member Kara Nilan '11. The first few days of class, however, plunged students into the material—and the rats.

"We were each given an individual rat housed with another," said Nilan. "We had to visit and spend time with our rat to get to know it; it was an everyday thing. We'd go in to feed it Froot Loops for it to be comfortable around us."

But student-rat relationships aren't always warm and fuzzy.

"After a week of getting to know them, we performed brain surgery on them," said Nilan. "For half of the rats, we legioned the hippocampus. Then half of the rats were sham rats—so we drilled, but didn't stick the electrodes in. They are the control group."

At first, Nilan was not sure of her stance on animal research.

"I was hesitant to do animal testing; I'm obsessed with animals," she said. She mentioned, however, that Ramus addressed the ethics of such research quite a bit at the start of the semester.

"We talk a lot about responsibilities," Ramus said. "I believe in the importance of animal research. I'm also a believer that, to do good science, you need to take good care of your animals."

"They recommend that you don't name [your rat]," said Nilan. "I did name mine Max, and my lab partner named hers Roger; I think I've gotten really weirdly attached."

These bonds, however, do not stand in the way of the class' research on memory.

"Rats have the same parts of the brain that humans do in terms of memory, so we can use them to understand how the human brain works," said Ramus. "We do two kinds of research: testing rats' memories to understand how different parts contribute to memory, and looking at how different parts interact with each other in the storage of memory."

"A week ago, we started training [the rats] in the water maze, which is the size of a small hot tub," said Nilan. "White paint is poured in the water so they can't see."

"The water maze is a standard benchmark test for spatial memory," Ramus explained.

"The first week was our 'shaping': We placed the rats in different starting locations and they had to swim to a black platform in the middle of the tub," Nilan said. "Now we've started hanging beacons; there are two of them. One of them is white and always over the platform, which is now submerged under water. The rats are now supposed to use the distal cues (towels, students in the same corners), as we have been moving beacons and platforms in different locations."

"This goes on every day for an hour at the same time," said Nilan. "In the end, we're supposed to be able to tell what cues the sham rats, versus those with a legion to the hippocampus, are using—how are their strategies different? Are they using the beacons, the distal cues on the wall, etc."

Not all the rats are swimming mazes for Nilan's class, though.

"I also have students conducting honors research with the rats," said Ramus. "Shikha Seth '11 is trying to understand how the hippocampus and orbitofrontal cortex interact. She trains rats to do an odor sequence and observes how neurons fire in the different brain regions. She puts wires, smaller than a human hair, into both parts, plugs a [wired] crown into an amplifier, and can watch the neurons firing as rats learn about odors."

"One of the reasons that we have the students engage in the real research project," Ramus said, "is because we want to get the most use out of the animals possible. While there's a pedagogical reason to teach students how to do research like they would in graduate school, there's the added bonus of completing a real research project with the animals at the same time. We are taking full advantage of the animals that we use."

On the opposite spectrum, some rats have taken full advantage of Leopold.

"There are some [rats] that I do like more than others. It's a matter of whether I can identify them—this one needs water every day," Leopold said, gesturing to one. "He also pees a lot, so I've gotten to know that one more. But one hates me. I don't know what happened, but two cage changes ago...he bit me."