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Rosemary
      Strasser and Sarah Larson
From left to right: Rosemary Strasser and Sarah Larson, a psychobiology graduate student, examine a Gouldian Finch, a species native to northern Australia. photo by Tim Fitzgerald

Australian Finches Aid UNO Professor's Research

by Deb Derrick

When it comes to studying human behavior, Rosemary Strasser gets a little help from her feathered friends. Colorful Australian Finches are helping Dr. Strasser - an assistant professor of psychology at UNO, who holds a courtesy appointment in biology - understand why we behave the way we do.

Scientists are increasingly interested in studying the interactions between hormones, behavior and the brain. Hormones influence things like eating and drinking, learning, memory and responses to stress. "Everything we do is with the goal of better understanding behavior across species, including humans," Dr. Strasser says. "I work with birds because they're a good model for what we're studying."

With funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), she is looking at in vivo exposure of hormones in Zebra Finches and its influence on development and behavior in offspring. The two-year project builds on her postdoctoral work in endocrinology at Washington State University (WSU).

Previous studies by WSU researchers, including Dr. Strasser, found that most vertebrates deposit androgens and other hormones into their eggs in early stages of development. But what happens to the offspring once they grow up? How do these hormones affect reproductive and parenting behaviors? These are some of the questions Dr. Strasser is asking in her current NIH study.

"What we learn about Zebra Finches has implications for humans," she says. "Human brains are 'organized' by maternal hormones, the same way as the little eggs from my Zebra Finch. I'm interested in the long-term effects of these hormones."

Dr. Strasser has a Ph.D. in behavioral neuroscience from Bowling Green State University. She was a research scientist and instructor at WSU before joining the UNO faculty in 2002. UNO's collaborative environment and support from colleagues like Jeffrey French and Suzanne Sollars make it an ideal place to blend her teaching and research interests. "I wanted the best of both worlds," she says. "I wanted to go to a university where I could do research, and where teaching was valued."

Dr. Strasser especially values her work with students. In the classroom, students develop their own research projects on topics such as welfare issues with pets in animal shelters and animal behavior modification. She has worked with students on honors theses, independent studies and conference poster presentations. Four students have won awards at regional conferences, and one student won an award to attend and present at an international conference.

"I'm proud of them," she says animatedly, "because they're fun, they're energetic, they're great! I like having them in lab and showing them research can be fun. When they're reading research articles in class, they can formulate their own research questions, and they can design experiments to answer those questions."

Dr. Strasser undergraduate research experiences give students confidence and motivation to succeed academically. "They may think research is something they can't do," she says. "By showing them it's within their grasp once they've had some training, it empowers them. Watching them gain that confidence is very rewarding. It's what science and research is all about."

For grant support and assistance with research activities being conducted at UNO, visit the UNO Office of Sponsored Programs and Research (SPR) Web site at http://www.unomaha.edu/spr/.

Deb Derrick is a grants coordinator in the UNO Office of Sponsored Programs and Research. She can be reached at dderrick@mail.unomaha.edu.

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