Frontiers

Enhancing Memory

Rising senior Michael Sulewski helps explore the molecular basis of long-term memory.
August 2010

For the past two years Michael Sulewski, C'11, has worked with a team of scientists in the lab of biologist Ted Abel on cutting-edge research that explores how to increase gene activity central to long-term memory formation. Their ultimate goal is developing treatments for cognitive deficits in psychiatric and neurological and neurodegenerative disorders.

Sulewski assisted doctoral student Josh Hawk on a study that was able to identify a particular family of proteins central to memory formation. "Basically there is this cascade of events that's set into motion when animals learn," explains Abel, the Edmund J. and Louise W. Kahn Term Professor of Biology. "And those cascades of events turn on gene activity by modifying the structure of the DNA in the nucleus. And that turns on additional genes and so on. We're dissecting that cascade, and we identified this one family of gene regulatory proteins that is absolutely critical for this process. If you block it, you block memory, and you block the ability to enhance memory." Sulewski also worked on Hawk's and Abel's current experiments to identify the "effecter gene" in the cascade that specifically changes neuronal functioning.

"You can work on something for weeks or months, and then it sometimes just doesn't work at all. But it's all part of the research process. And when things do work, when you realize you have touched on new knowledge, something no one else has done before, it's incredibly rewarding." – Michael Sulewski

A Biological Basis of Behavior major, Sulewski was introduced to the project as a sophomore by the Penn Undergraduate Research Program (PURM), which provides funding so that students can undertake a substantial research experience under the guidance of a faculty mentor. He continued working in Abel's lab throughout his junior year as independent study. Abel says undergraduates play an important role in the work of his lab. In the process, they have the opportunity to convert textbook knowledge into active knowledge of how the brain and memory functions, and how molecules can be manipulated in the lab.

"They also get the sense of how science is a social, collaborative enterprise," Abel says. "And I think a lot of them get the research bug and then go on to incorporate that in the careers they choose."

After his experience in Abel's lab, Sulewski is well poised to pursue his goal of a career in academic medicine. He will be listed as an author on the paper resulting from Hawk's study, and he was the first junior to win the Biological Basis of Behavior Program's Stellar Award, given annually to the most outstanding research presentation at the Biological Basis Society Student Research Symposium.

"Having a chance to work in a lab, especially so early as an undergrad, was pretty eye-opening," Sulewski says. "You can work on something for weeks or months, and then it sometimes just doesn't work at all. But it's all part of the research process. And when things do work, when you realize you have touched on new knowledge, something no one else has done before, it's incredibly rewarding."