Summer Undergraduate Researcher Grace Nichols ’20 (CLAS)

SURF student Grace Nichols '20 (CLAS) using software to measure response rates of mice with hopes of understanding Tinnitus. June 27, 2019. (Sean Flynn/UConn Photo)
SURF student Grace Nichols '20 (CLAS) using software to measure response rates of mice with hopes of understanding Tinnitus. June 27, 2019. (Sean Flynn/UConn Photo)

UConn’s Office of Undergraduate Research each year provides Summer Undergraduate Research Fund (SURF) awards to support full-time undergraduate students in summer research or creative projects.

SURF awards are available to students in all majors at all UConn campuses. The students’ project proposals are reviewed by a faculty committee representing various schools and colleges, and SURF award recipients are chosen through a competitive process. Each SURF award winner is supervised by a UConn faculty member.

This summer, UConn Today will take a look at various SURF scholars and their work.

Name: Grace Nichols
Year: Rising Senior
Major: Molecular and Cell Biology

Summer research project: Nichols is performing research at UConn Health this summer by using a mouse model to identify the types of sound stimuli that are more likely to induce tinnitus, a medical condition characterized by the perception of a sound that is not really there. Many elderly individuals and military veterans who served in combat are affected by the condition and its causes are not all that well understood. A native of Wethersfield, Connecticut, she will continue this research in the fall and her faculty mentor is professor of neuroscience Douglas Oliver.

What is the purpose of the research you are doing this summer?

“It’s actually a subproject of greater tinnitus one being done here at UConn Health. Tinnitus is a perceived ringing in the ear and lots of people are affected by it, especially people in the military that are exposed to loud sounds and older individuals because of age-related hearing loss. Our grant comes from the Department of Defense and we are hopefully going to develop a test for tinnitus because currently the only way you know if someone has it is if they tell you they have ringing in their ears. There is no objective test a doctor can run that would tell you whether someone has tinnitus. A lot of that is because we don’t really understand the neurological changes happening in the brain that are driving tinnitus forward so that is why there is no effective cure or treatments for it really.”

Have you always been interested in this field and how did you decide to apply for a SURF grant?

“After my freshman year, I wasn’t even on a health sciences tract. I was an actuarial sciences major actually and I thought I wanted to do math and finance. But, I changed my mind and applied to this lab on a whim through the Health Research Program (of the Office of Undergraduate Research). I was interested in what was going on there and I had previous computational biology experience and a math background.

“I joined this lab last summer and then I continued research here throughout the school year and I really enjoyed it. I received academic credit for it and it is going to be part of my honors thesis and University Scholar project. I wanted to continue to work here over the summer so I applied for the SURF grant.”

What do you like about doing research?

“It really interesting and rewarding because it’s taking a step further from what you learn in the classroom in a basic anatomy or neuroscience class. A topic you might learn about in one slide or one lecture, you are now going in depth on and on the front lines in actually having the opportunity to research something and finding something new. It’s a really rewarding experience. I like solving problems every day.”

How is researching on the UConn Health campus different than your traditional classroom work in Storrs?

“At UConn Health, I am surrounded by medical professionals and other individuals. We collaborate with other doctors and surgeons on our project and will be recruiting patients for when we move to the clinical stages of our project and I will have an opportunity to interact with them. It’s definitely a different environment and I think it’s really to have the opportunity to interact with the other professionals in the neuroscience department and see what they do.”

What else are you involved with at UConn?

“I’ve been part of the fundraising committee for HuskyThon for the past three years and I’ve stayed the whole time…18 hours on my feet. I also am part of KUBE (Kids and UConn Bridging Education), where we work and mentor with middle school students. I work with College Health Science Corps where we go out in local medically-underserved communities. We to a farm in Lebanon each week and give health lessons to people that work there.”