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 Dr. Amanda Kentner, Associate Professor of Psychology, School of Arts and Sciences

Faculty Spotlight: Dr. Amanda Kentner, Associate Professor of Psychology, School of Arts and Sciences

  • Amanda Kentner, PhD, Associate Professor of Psychology in the School of Arts and Sciences at Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences (MCPHS), is fascinated by questions.

    Her boundless curiosity has drawn many students at MCPHS to her research lab; together with those students, Kentner recently produced an article in Neuroscience.

    The opportunity to complete research alongside a professor is an invaluable experience for students looking to gain real-world experience and prepare for future careers in research.

    We sat down with Dr. Kentner to learn more about her research, her experience working with undergraduate and graduate students at MCPHS, and her advice for students considering a future in research.

    First, let’s talk about your research—what’s the big question you’re looking to answer?

    I find that my “big question” is constantly being reframed and changes as I uncover new data! But, concisely, I would say that we are examining enriched environments to see whether they are neuroprotective and rehabilitative against the effects of early life stressors. For one of our research streams, we challenge pregnant rats, or their pups, with an endotoxin that induces an inflammatory sickness response; that’s a response which, in humans, is linked to an increased risk of autism and schizophrenia. And when we give this endotoxin to rats, we observe symptoms which mimic autism and schizophrenia in humans—disrupted cognitive functioning, a decrease in social behaviors, etc. Recent randomized controlled clinical trials have demonstrated the efficacy of environmental enrichment as a therapy for autism, highlighting its translational feasibility and acceptability in clinical practice. We are trying to understand how it works.

    How do you structure your experiments to learn about that?

    Using laboratory rats, we are attempting to see whether enriching their living conditions can help reduce the appearance of the behaviors and symptoms which are analogous to autism and schizophrenia. We manipulate elements of the environment such as the maternal care, the number of social opportunities, and other types of sensory stimulation that the animals receive.

    Right now in neuroscience and psychology, there is a lot of interest in neurocircuits; however, we’re studying those circuits in very simple lab setups. In a typical research lab, rats are housed in pairs in a cage with one hiding tube and toy. But in our enriched cages, there is space for multiple mothers and their pups, which is more like the natural, complex structure that rats create for themselves in the wild. Moreover, we introduce novelty by changing the type and location of toys across the study. Increased physical activity, novelty and social enrichment change the brain; both independently and combined. We see higher resilience, fewer stress markers, and more dynamic social interactions in rats that live in complex housing and social structures. So if you’re trying to study how the brain works, but not studying it in a more natural and complex social world, then you’re not getting the whole picture. It’s expensive to create enriched environments for lab rats, but it’s important, and I would argue necessary, to return to those fundamentals. It will make for better science!

    Where do student interns fit into the picture? What is your goal for them to learn and gain from the experience?

    I approach each intern in a very individualized fashion. One of the great things about MCPHS students is the diversity of source programs. I see students from occupational therapy, pharmacy, premedical and health studies; some are here to gain masters degrees and some are undergraduates; the whole array. My goals for undergraduate students include learning about research methodology, collecting and analyzing data, and scientific writing —this includes tissue collection, gels, blots, and running other types of testing. Junyoung Shin, BS Pharmacology and Toxicology '18, for example, is one current student who gained two hundred hours of experience working on a behavioral study, and is now interested in going to graduate school.

    Can you give us a sense of what the interns were working on this summer?

    Our most recent publication, a research article in Neuroscience, really sums up our last two years in the lab. With respect to a typical intern experience, students might be performing behavioral collection or scoring for one study, bench work for another, and data analyses for a third, all simultaneously. The challenge is for them to put all that work in context in a very short period of time!

    Finally, if you were speaking to a student who was interested in doing this kind of work, what qualities or experiences would you say are essential?

    I look for a student who is curious, resourceful, and has cognitive flexibility. You can always look up a fact, but it takes cognitive flexibility to look at an array of facts, see connections between them, and form a question that you’re passionate about answering.

    Additionally, it’s important not to be afraid to fail, and to be willing to learn through your failures, which is where my students’ most profound learning moments occur. You know, we are studying resilience in rats, but we also look for resilience in people.

    The School of Arts and Sciences at MCPHS prepares students for future careers in chemical and biological sciences, health sciences, health psychology, premedical and health studies, public health, and healthcare business and technology.