By Published: Aug. 1, 2022

CU Boulder neuroscientist will spend much of August helping European high school students learn the finer points of gene manipulation in prairie voles

Neuroscientist Zoe Donaldson and her team have found a new way to contribute to global science education.

The associate professor in the Departments of Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology (MCDB) and Psychology and Neuroscience at the University of Colorado Boulder is teaming up with a postdoctoral researcher and one of her graduate students to teach international high school students this August at the School of Molecular and Theoretical Biology (SMTB) in Estonia.

Donaldson became involved with the SMTB back in the late 1990s when she attended college with the man who would help start the school, Fyodor (Fedya) Kondrashov.

Donaldson and her postdoc and grad student

At the top of the page: The students will help create a set of molecular tools to manipulate specific genes in the prairie vole brain, like the one at the top of the page. Above: Zoe Donaldson (right) and her graduate student, Liza Brusman, middle, and postdoctoral student, Julie Sadino, left. (Photos courtesy of Zoe Donaldson).

“Although Fedya and I went into different fields—evolutionary biology and neurogenetics, respectively—our work has had interwoven themes that have seen us collaborate multiple times,” Donaldson says. “We kept in touch, but it was only after I joined the faculty at CU Boulder and had established my lab that it was feasible for me to begin teaching at the school.”

Kondrashov was excited to invite Donaldson to teach at SMTB.

“I knew that Zoe has exactly the qualities we are looking for,” Kondrashov says. “One of the school’s pillars is to create an inclusive program. Every year we have students from over a dozen countries. We work very hard to eliminate barriers so that students feel included. I know that Zoe gets it, and I know she’ll create an inclusive environment.”

Donaldson says before the pandemic, she received a grant from the National Science Foundation to develop new ways to manipulate the genome of the prairie vole (a small rodent about the size of a hamster), and she had an idea for how to involve high school students in a project that would fit into the goals of the grant. 

“That was 2020,” she says. “This is just now becoming a reality after two years of pandemic patience.”

Donaldson explains that prairie voles, unlike lab mice and rats, are monogamous and form lifelong bonds with their mating partners. “My lab studies what makes it possible for them to form such bonds, how doing so changes their brain and what happens when they lose a partner.”

Donaldson’s work combines neural and genetic experiments to ask questions like what genes are required to be able to form a pair bond, and can an existing bond be broken by manipulating genes in the brain.

“These questions are the core of what we’ll be doing at SMTB,” Donaldson says. “The students will help us make a set of molecular tools to manipulate specific genes in the prairie vole brain, which will be used by my lab and others in future experiments to try to make or break bonds.” 

Julie Sadino, who recently earned her PhD in MCDB with a behavioral neuroscience focus, works with Donaldson as a postdoctoral fellow and will be teaching alongside Donaldson at SMTB. 

“This is a really cool opportunity, not only for us but also for the students,” Sadino says. “I’m very thankful that such a program exists and that we were invited to be a part of it. On a personal note, this is going way out of my comfort zone, but I hope to gain a lot from this experience. I've never been to Europe before, let alone seen how science is done in an international context, so it's all very exciting.”

Liza Brusman, a fourth-year MCDB graduate student who has also served as a teaching assistant, is also going on the trip.

“I think it will be a great opportunity,” Brusman says. “I didn't know what research entailed or how experiments were done when I was in high school, and an experience like this would have been really valuable to me. I also like teaching … (and) being able to make students excited about science.”

This is a really cool opportunity, not only for us but also for the students. ... I’m very thankful that such a program exists and that we were invited to be a part of it."

Donaldson says both Sadino and Brusman have “specialized skills” that will be “invaluable” to their course.

“The hands-on nature of the course means that one person can't do it alone,” Donaldson says. “In addition to teaching, the three of us will serve as mentors to students as they decide which projects to pursue and discuss career opportunities in science.” 

Kondrashov says he expects about 50 students to take in classes and labs at SMTB—some of whom are expected to be from Ukraine.

“Our students come from a diversity of different countries. Some of them end up in the top universities in the world—Harvard, Yale, Cambridge—just to name a few. Most end up in the best universities available to them in the country where they are from. An incredible statistic that I have yet to internalize is that among our first graduates, more than half end up going to do a master’s or a PhD degree, while some have gone on to industry from their bachelor’s program and some have gone on to medical school and starting a career in medicine or pharmacy.” 

Kondrashov adds that he hopes students get to know Donaldson as a person—“to understand her values about research, human relationships in the lab, her integrity and motivation, and also to see her as a wonderful human. In short, my greatest wish is for all of them to be themselves and in doing so being the role models to our students they crave to get to interact with.”