Coming to Fruition

John Bingham

In the Summer of 2010 I decided to switch my research focus from mammalian learning to learning in earthworms.  The reasons for the decision are still not entirely clear, even to me. Experiments with rats were starting to require more paperwork and approval, slowing the process and making student-drive projects in the time frame of a single semester nearly impossible… Rats are expensive (~$30 each) and money is tight…  I felt at a dead-end with regard to my rat studies… Whatever the reason, I wanted a change.

One of my first psychology studies ever (during a 6-week psychology segment in high school – thanks Mr. Bingham!) involved training earthworms to turn left in a T-maze.  It worked, sort of – the worms achieved about 70% accuracy, as I recall.  This was in 1972 or 1973 – around the time that Rosenkoetter & Boyce were publishing their work showing that T-maze learning research in earthworms was flawed, and essentially putting an end to instrumental learning studies in earthworms.  As a poorly-read high-school student, I knew nothing of their work.

Maybe it was a memory of this early study that brought me back to earthworms, but whatever the reason, I made the change.

Many enthusiastic student researchers later (two summer FURSCA students and 11 other students who have contributed to presentations at meeting), the research is clearly paying off.  First sign of this was an invitation to present at a symposium in 2011 associated with the Society for Neuroscience meeting in Washington, DC.  Now two papers related to my earthworm work have been published:

PeerJ  (with three Albion alums!)

Advances in Physiology Education

So what good will come from this line of research?  Well, if I’m being really optimistic, I’ll tell you that we’ll gain a better understanding of how learning and memory work at a neural level – not just in earthworms but in humans as well – with implications for cures for memory disorders.  If I’m being a bit less optimistic I’ll argue that we’ll increase knowledge about this particular animal, and basic knowledge in and of itself is a good thing.  But regardless of my level of optimism, I’ll tell you that the research allows many bright students to become better scientists, developing their research design, data analysis, and laboratory skills.  This is enough.

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