I want students to feel confident in their ability to figure out information and learn on their own. The more they practice that, the more ready they are to be successful as learners, scientists and professionals.

Jennie Stevenson

Jennie Stevenson's research examines alcohol consumption in prairie voles, but her work reveals quite a bit about how and why social connections are so vital to mental and physical health in humans.

Much of her research has involved oxytocin, a hormone that promotes bonding, attachment and positive stress-coping behaviors, and has been well studied in prairie voles — small rodents that form selective bonds with others and have adopted social structures similar to those of humans. These traits make voles excellent animal models for studying how social context can affect human biology and psychology.

"What I really like is that this work gets at the questions I'm most passionate about," says Stevenson, a professor of psychology. "Why do we need each other, and what happens when we don't have each other? We can use a really social species like the vole to help us understand those questions."

Stevenson's research findings suggest that alcohol decreases the production of oxytocin in the body, and that increased oxytocin can decrease alcohol consumption. Evidence that alcoholism and alcohol abuse is exacerbated in individuals who don't have healthy social relationships and vice versa suggests that someone lacking in social connections may not produce oxytocin efficiently.

Stevenson has also studied oxytocin's role in stress and aging in collaboration with Bucknell biology professor Mark Haussmann. They found that while social isolation accelerates biological aging, oxytocin treatment actively works to prevent premature aging.

"Oxytocin is probably one of the reasons why social support is so protective," she says.

Stevenson relies heavily on students to run her lab. She provides the overall structure of the research but mentors students throughout the process. Undergraduates perform the molecular biology and animal research, help analyze the data and write the papers.

"It's their work. They get a deep understanding of the challenges and the problem-solving, time management and organizational skills it takes to do science on a daily basis," she says. "I'm there in person or only a text away, but I want them to feel in control of their studies.

"I want them to feel competent and confident in their ability to figure out information and learn on their own. The more they practice that, the more ready they are to be successful as learners, scientists and professionals."

Posted September 2018