What did that gerbil just do?
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What did that gerbil just do?

Local summer interns pursue real science in Israel through BIU/YU program

Baar-Ilan University Professor Arie Zaban, left, with administrators and participants in the Summer Science Research Internship Program, including Jacob Rosenberg, middle of front row, Zachary Friedman, behind him in black shirt, and Rachel Retter, in front of the tree. (Faith Baginsky)
Baar-Ilan University Professor Arie Zaban, left, with administrators and participants in the Summer Science Research Internship Program, including Jacob Rosenberg, middle of front row, Zachary Friedman, behind him in black shirt, and Rachel Retter, in front of the tree. (Faith Baginsky)

Is there a direct relationship between testosterone and risk-taking behavior?

Jacob Rosenberg of Teaneck spent his summer helping to find an answer to that question by studying wild gerbils in the Israeli desert.

Mr. Rosenberg, a rising sophomore at the University of Maryland, was one of 30 undergraduate science majors who recently completed the ninth annual Summer Science Research Internship Program, a seven-week initiative sponsored jointly by Yeshiva University and Bar-Ilan University.

Housed on YU’s Jerusalem campus and bused daily to Bar-Ilan’s campus in the Tel Aviv suburb of Ramat Gan, the interns all were Orthodox students from universities that included YU, Cornell, Cooper Union, Johns Hopkins, and University College London.

Mr. Rosenberg, a graduate of Torah Academy of Bergen County and now a neurobiology and physiology major, is 23. He’s a little older than others in the program because he had deferred entering university in order to study at Yeshivat Hakotel in Jerusalem, and volunteer in the IDF as a combat medic. He plans to make aliyah after college and attend medical school in Israel.

He and master’s student Chen Naor, working under the supervision of Dr. Lee Koren, captured Baluchistan gerbils in the Arava Valley and marked their tails with a type of barcode. Then they set the animals loose and filmed their behavior as they chose between trays of seeds mixed with sand that the students had set up, some near the relative safety of a bush and others in the open.

“We could see which gerbils took a bigger risk by going to the trays in the open,” Mr. Rosenberg said. “Watching the video later, we then analyzed how many seconds each gerbil on the feeding tray kept its head up looking for predators and how many seconds its head was down foraging in the sand for the seeds. The less time looking for predators, the more risk was being taken.”

They also counted how many seeds were left in each tray, an indication of how quickly each gerbil gave up the hunt. “If it gave up early, the gerbil was taking less of a risk, but if spent its entire time finding and eating seeds it was taking a bigger risk.”

Mr. Rosenberg explained that earlier research into the testosterone-risky behavior correlation was done on birds.

Dr. Lee Koren, left, with intern Jacob Rosenberg of Teaneck and graduate student Chen Naor.Bar-Ilan University

“Since gerbils are mammals, they have a similar organ setup as humans, so we’re able to relate our research back to humans,” he said. “Hopefully, we can take the results and see how they can be applied to humans.

“Throughout the summer I learned many new scientific techniques and how to better focus my research question and analyze behaviors that are indicative of a specific meaning — in this case, taking a risk or playing it safe.”

Rachel Retter of Bergenfield, a 20-year-old rising junior at Yeshiva University’s Stern College for Women, interned under Dr. David Anaki in Bar-Ilan’s Gonda (Goldschmied) Multidisciplinary Brain Research Center.

The focus of her research was the parietal cortex, a brain region that only recently has been shown to be involved in episodic memory. “First I did background research into all the studies done so far on the topic so that I could help design the experiment,” Ms. Retter said. Dr. Anaki taught her and her lab partner to use E-Prime psychology software to program the experiment, which involved having subjects sit at a computer and perform arithmetic and verbal tasks.

“We recruited participants from our own internship program because they needed to be English-speaking,” she said. “Afterward, we collected and analyzed the data, and each of us wrote an abstract summarizing what we did, complete with graphs and figures.

“My results supported my hypothesis that you can use arithmetic tasks to activate the parietal cortex, and in that way enhance a certain type of memory, specifically the vividness and richness of detail.”

Ms. Retter, who hopes to pursue a career in clinical psychology, said her mentor encouraged her to be involved in all aspects of the study from beginning to end, something she has found to be rare in lab internships.

“The paradigm which Rachel helped to develop will serve us in future studies to fully understand the PC’s role in memory,” Dr. Anaki said.

Summer science research interns Esther Stern of Woodmere, N.Y., and Rachel Retter of Bergenfield flank Dr. David Anaki at the Gonda (Goldschmied) Multidisciplinary Brain Research Center.

The interns were taken on weekly science-related field trips, to such places as the Agriculture Ministry’s Agricultural Research Organization-Volcani Center, Israel Aerospace Industries, and Soreq Nuclear Research Center.

They also visited the Bartenura winery, participated in an archeological dig at Tel es-Safi/Gath, heard lectures from Bar-Ilan faculty members, and attended optional Judaic study sessions at night and a daily Talmud study session on the bus.

“The trips were amazing,” Ms. Retter said. “My favorite was the Volcani Center, where we saw how they do genetic engineering of plants to find better ways to feed people. It shows how Israeli scientific research directly helps the world.”

Cooper Union junior Zachary Friedman of Englewood, 21, said he was excited to unearth an animal tooth from a Philistine encampment during the archaeological dig.

But the real resume-builder for Mr. Friedman was his internship in Dr. Adam Teman’s group in the Emerging Nanoscaled Integrated Circuits and Systems (EnICS) Labs Impact Center at Bar-Ilan. Dr. Teman and his colleagues generate ideas for improving the functionality and efficiency of computer hardware.

“The lab produced a novel type of computer chip that can store memory more efficiently and with less power draw,” Mr. Friedman said.

His job was to create a test script — a set of instructions for how to test the invention to determine how well it functions. “I had never worked with test scripts before, or with a chip like this, so I had to figure it out,” he said. Using older scripts as his basis, he crafted a user-friendly and programmer-friendly test script that is intuitive to use and easy to read, he added.

Mr. Friedman, a 2016 alumnus of the Frisch School in Paramus, is majoring in electrical engineering with a minor in computer science.

Zachary Friedman of Englewood spent the summer interning at Bar-Ilan University. (Avital Turel)

This year’s YU-BIU internship program was directed by Professor Arlene Wilson-Gordon of Bar-Ilan’s department of chemistry. She paired each participant with a Bar-Ilan faculty member and research assignments that she thought would best match the student’s interests and promote growth and career development.

“The students get an insight into the world-class research that is being carried out in Bar-Ilan’s research labs and they get to know Israeli graduate students,” Dr. Wilson-Gordon said.

Since its inception nine years ago, the internship program has been supported by Dr. Mordecai D. Katz, honorary chairman of the Bar-Ilan board of trustees, and the J. Samuel Harwit z”l and Manya Harwit-Aviv Charitable Trust.

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