I came to Bucknell because I wanted to work with students in the lab. Because of the University's emphasis on student-professor engagement, we get to connect with students in a unique, powerful way.
Professor Mark Haussmann, biology, loves watching his students make discoveries in the lab. That's why he partners with students to conduct and publish cutting-edge research on the links between stress and aging, a subject Haussmann has studied for 10 years.
"At some point when I'm engaging with students in research, most of them have a lightbulb moment when they realize they're seeing something no one has before," he says. "The teaching model we have at Bucknell really equips students to make discoveries of their own and sometimes publish their findings as undergrads."
Hausmann's lab is comprised of sophomores, juniors and seniors who work to understand the molecular impacts of prenatal stress on aging in humans and animals. He and his students have found that quail exposed to stress hormones as embryos experience higher levels of stress when facing challenging experiences, such as social isolation. These birds also show signs of advanced aging in their DNA, which could increase the risks for health complications later in life.
"Our research suggests that prenatal development not only plays a role in how an individual responds to stressful situations, but it also has long-term health effects that might not even be realized until middle-age," explains Haussmann, whose recent research on quails has included as many as nine of his current and former students as co-authors.
"This area of study is something we can all connect with," he adds. "Unfortunately, we're all stressed and we're all aging. Studying the ties between the two can lead to better preventative treatments for diseases that develop as our DNA deteriorates with age."
When it comes to fighting the cellular effects of stress, students in Haussman's lab are finding that social relationships may be a powerful mitigator. Their current research — collaborative work with Professor Jennie Stevenson, psychology — suggests that facing challenges alongside another individual lowers stress levels and protects against the cellular wear and tear of aging.
The study is one of the first to explore the relationship between social bonds, stress and aging, Haussman says. Empowering students to make novel discoveries like these is what he considers the core of his work at Bucknell.
"We provide a safe environment where students are allowed to be curious and test their questions," he says. "It's incredibly fun to watch them let their guards down and jump headfirst into exploring the world around them."