St. Olaf News


An interdisciplinary approach to studying the nervous system


Andrew Kleven ’14 worked with Associate Professor of Biology and Physics Jay Demas to develop a yearlong research project using optogenetics.

An exercise science major with a neuroscience concentration, Andrew Kleven ‘14 had an interest in optogenetics — a relatively new way of studying how the nervous system functions.

So he approached St. Olaf College Associate Professor of Biology and Physics Jay Demas early last fall about combining his two areas of interest to create a single research project for the entire year.

“Knowledge in both exercise science and neuroscience is necessary for evidence-based physical therapy practice,” says Kleven, who will attend the Mayo School of Health Sciences this fall to study physical therapy. “I knew Professor Demas had familiarity in neuroscience, so I talked to him to see if it was feasible.”

It was. Demas agreed to facilitate a student-faculty research project examining the topic.

Kleven’s project is just one example of St. Olaf’s commitment to fostering independent undergraduate research opportunities across the liberal arts. Students are encouraged to combine academic interests in their various independent studies.

Just as other students have created projects that combine mathematics with ceramics or art with environmental science, Kleven has used St. Olaf’s integrated approach to learning to combine exercise science and neuroscience.

Kleven spent his fall semester planning out his research, first by reading as much as he could on optogenetics. Developed just over a decade ago, optogenetics uses light to stimulate genetically modified neurons.

Neuroscientists are using the technique to better understand the development of the brain, the physiology of the nervous system, and specific subsets of neurons. While it’s decades away from being able to be used as a possible treatment for neurological disorders, it’s playing an important role in helping researchers learn more about the nervous system.

For his experiment, Kleven wanted to see whether elevating activity in damaged neurons would facilitate their repair and the regeneration of their lost connections. So he used optogenetics on several genetically modified fruit fly lines to test regeneration in different populations of neurons.

“We were hoping the nerves would repair themselves,” Kleven says. While the light didn’t seem to have an effect on one of the lines, in two others it showed promising results.

“The lab skills I developed and the neuroscience knowledge that I gained will definitely help me next year,” Kleven says, noting that he’s hoping his studies at Mayo will focus on neurological disorders.

Kleven’s research was funded by the St. Olaf Biology Department through the Dr. E. Gordon and Alice Behrents Endowment in Biology Research. The fund provides research supplies for undergraduate students conducting meaningful research.