Undergraduate Biology Student Researcher: Jeff Goff

Jeff Goff portrait

Jeff Goff majored in Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology and minored in Psychology. He graduated with Departmental Honors in Spring 2023.

Jeff's Research at KUSlide with slices of Praire Vole Brains

“I’m in Dr. Adam Smith’s lab in the Pharmacology and Toxicology department and we study stress in social environments. My research project has been about how having aversive or unpleasant social interaction changes how your brain reacts to future social interaction. The tie that put into it is social anxiety disorder, we study that in a rodent model, where they experience unpleasant social interaction, and then we can look at their brain and how it reacts to being present and near social reaction in the future.”

How did you first become interested in doing this kind of research? 
“I did psychology classes in high school, that was what got me interested in the topic but when I started at KU, I was pre-med and I joined the lab thinking, ‘Oh, yeah, it'll look good for medical applications’ -- That it'd be a good extracurricular, but then being in the lab and actually doing that research was what really made me want to continue doing research.”

How did you find your lab?
“I joined the lab fall of my freshman year [fall 2019]. I got really lucky too, because mine was just a cold email. So then spring 2020, when everything closed [due to COVID], I was not really contributing. I would go to meetings and I would hang out, but because we weren't allowed on campus, I didn't really do anything [in the lab]. Then the following year at the start of 2021, I got the K-INBRE scholarship. That was what kickstarted my own project. ”

What does your research look like on a day-to-day basis?

“I spent most of my time last year processing brain tissue. [...] A lot of what I've been doing this year is getting protocols to work the way they should, so that I can run real tissue through [the microscope] and get actual data. But there's a lot of other stuff to do in a vertebrate lab, there's a lot of  managing the animals and making sure that they're safe and healthy or just general lab chores and so, day to day varies a little bit.”

Jeff at a research conference

How are rodent models used in your research?
“[The rodent model we use are] prairie voles, which are monogamous so they form pair bonds, and our research benefits from them forming these relationships and preferences for partners.

I’m oversimplifying it, but the way it works is that [...] you have boyfriend & girlfriend [Prairie Voles, if you take away the girlfriend and then put another guy in there the boyfriend's like, ‘Whoa, this is my home turf, get out.!’ and so the voles are  a really good model for our work because that aggression is really reliable. If you  have two animals that are paired, they're going to be aggressive to other animals [and you’ll see changes ocuring in their brain activity].

The technical term for it is called a Resident Intruder Test because you have your resident who's going to be aggressive and you have your intruder who's going to get aggressed. It's a very reliable way to create social anxiety in the prairie voles and then test for changes in their brain.”

How do you get the information from the Prairie Voles?
“We take out the brains, slice them and put them on slides before microscope imaging them […] so we can label certain proteins that express after a neuron fires. It’s an indirect way of looking at what brain regions are active. So, we could see what brain regions have this protein in them.”

Have you made any discoveries or finding? 

“A lot of my project is looking at [brain] regions that send signals to each other that we know of in mice and then being like, ‘okay, does this work the same in voles?’ and then building on that. 

What my project has been finding in the last week or two is that there is a region of the brain where after [voles] experience social stress, that region becomes more reactive to social stress in the future and less reactive to like predator stress. So that stress is reworking the way it controls an animal's anxiety state because they're learning to be more afraid of social interaction rather than innately fearful of like smell of a cat.”

What did you find most challenging about your project?

“What I found the hardest, which I think always feels kind of weird, is just the total lack of immediate gratification because these projects take a really long time and they especially take a really long time to get results and so a lot of times it's hard to either not get stressed or not get overwhelmed and have nothing to show for it,  because there are like long weeks or long days where it's like,’ Oh man, this sucks’ and you're not going to  get any reward for it for a couple of months and it's hard to have that resiliency of  ‘oh, I have to keep doing it because eventually it will pay off.’”

What advice would you offer other students?

“Something that I think really helps me is being able to commiserate with other people and  having a community to talk to about it. Being in K-IMBRE and being in the Honors Seminar, having places where there are other peers doing the exact same thing and going through the same things is really helpful.

It always pays off to have a good mentor that you can say, ‘Hey, I'm having a hard time, this is really difficult.’ and then they will be receptive or helpful in those situations. Talk to people. I guess that's really the biggest thing.”

What do you plan to do after graduation?

“I'm doing a Postbaccalaureate Fellowship at the National Institute of Alcoholism and Alcohol Abuse. I'll be doing research based off of pathways associated with assessing risk. We'll have alcohol addicted mice that are more open to committing risky behaviors because they want alcohol or want a reward. So the research will be looking at how the brain is assessing whether or not a risk as reward is worth taking.”

Jeff working in the lab