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Faith in Science

The summer 2010 issue of the Baylor Line gives insight into the important cancer research Baylor professors are conducting. But what about students and alumni? There are many different kinds of research done at Baylor, and many undergraduate students have taken part in these research projects. Read on to discover more about Baylor research and the people involved.

Faith in Science
By Claire Moncla008

“If you believe God created every human the way they are, is it ethical to cure people with autism and change their lifestyle dramatically?”

When a committee member asked Rachel Kressin Zamzow ’10 this question at her honors thesis defense, she knew what to say.

“I said, ‘here’s what I do know: I know that God’s sovereign, and I know he’s good. People who have autism have autism because he wanted it to be that way,’” Zamzow told the committee member. “‘I also believe that we’re given callings, purposes, and minds of certain intellect to solve problems we have on earth,’” she elaborated. “‘The ultimate goal in our lives shouldn’t be to cure autism; it should be to glorify God. But if you can glorify him through doing something science-related, it’s all the better.”

Zamzow’s belief in the importance of her research spurred her to academic achievement at Baylor: she won an award for outstanding research in neuroscience her last semester. As part of the honors program, Zamzow had to complete an honors thesis and defend it before a committee. She chose to do her thesis project with mentor Dr. Bradley Keele on autism research.

Why autism? Zamzow said she had three main reasons. “I’m really fascinated with the field,” she said. “There are lots of hypotheses and lots of theories, but nothing has been confirmed as a cause.”

She also had an experience that piqued her interest. Zamzow took a clinical psychology class in which she worked with an autistic student from a local school. “Interacting with him daily was fascinating because I was trying to see what in his brain was causing his behavior to be that way,” she said.

Zamzow’s mentor had also done smaller projects heading in the direction of autism research, so the path was set for her—but it wasn’t easy. “It was a substantially sized project,” Zamzow said. “We spent so much time and resources on it.”

Zamzow’s first step was to pick a specific topic in autism to study. She chose to research prenatal stress as a possible factor in autism. In order to study a disease or disorder that doesn’t have a cure, Zamzow had to create the effects of autism in an animal so she could study those effects. Zamzow said many researchers typically use rodents because they are easily acquirable and have similar brain anatomy and function to humans.

In humans, the three core symptoms of autism are communication deficit, social deficit, and repetitive motion. In order to test for these symptoms, Zamzow had to find symptoms in rats that were what she calls “translational”— or equivalent to the three core symptoms.

Rats’ primary form of communication is olfactory, so to test for the communication deficit equivalency in rats, she gave two groups of rats—one group unstressed and the other prenatally stressed—familiar and unfamiliar smells on swabs and documented their reactions to the scents. “We hypothesized that the prenatally stressed rats would be less interested in smelling the swab with the stranger smells,” Zamzow said.

To test for social deficit, she put an unfamiliar rat in the cages of the unstressed and prenatally stressed rats, and measured how much time both sets spent on the unfamiliar rat’s side of the cage and on the opposite side.

Testing for an equivalent of repetitive movement in rat behavior was a little more difficult, but Zamzow found a way. “Repetitive movement can also be translated in humans as the inability to change a routine,” she said. So she conditioned the rats to a routine and then changed the routine. Zamzow said she and her mentor hypothesized that the prenatally stressed rats would try to continue the routine more than the other group would and therefore demonstrate autistic symptoms.

Even though her results didn’t demonstrate a major break-through in an autism cure, the brains of the prenatally-stressed rats can be used in future research as a contrast in other studies. Through this project, Zamzow also found her field of future study. “I am really interested in developmental brain disorders,” she said.

Now a Baylor alumna, Zamzow is very busy. She recently married Corey Zamzow, a senior medical humanities major at Baylor, and she is applying to graduate schools. “I’m trying to decide between graduate school in neuroscience and doing research like what I did for my project. Or I might want to go to a field for science writing,” she said.

With many possible paths ahead, Zamzow is sure about two things: her passion about science and about God.  “As I learn more about science and as I learn more about my faith, I see them coming together,” she said.

Want to read more? Check out Claire’s companion story, Impulse Control.

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