Student and professor research team explores the early development of locomotion

MEDIA, Pa. -- While earning her bachelor's degree in biology from the Brandywine campus, 2016 Penn State graduate Vyshnavi Nalluri embraced the opportunity to engage in research with Assistant Professor of Psychology Valerie Mendez-Gallardo. The experience Nalluri gained will stand her in good stead for life after Penn State Brandywine.

Her study, titled "Crawling Locomotion in the Newborn Rat After Exposure to the Odor of Amniotic Fluid and Milk," is a continuation of postdoctoral research started by Mendez-Gallardo at Idaho State University that looks to better understand the early development of locomotion.

“This project has a lot to do with my research interests in general, which are learning about prenatal and early postnatal behavioral development,” Mendez-Gallardo said. “I investigate what happens right before birth and how that relates to early postnatal development.” 

During the study, newborn rat pups were placed prone on a glass surface and then exposed to the odor of amniotic fluid and milk. From underneath the glass, a video camera captured the rat pups’ locomotion. Nalluri then studied the video footage and characterized the newborn rats’ every move when reacting to the odors. Results showed that all newborn pups expressed crawling behaviors when exposed to the odors.

Rat pups crawling

From underneath the glass, a video camera captured the rat pups’ locomotion. 

Credit: Valerie Mendez-Gallardo

Mendez-Gallardo explained that amniotic fluid and milk are biologically relevant stimuli that evoke behavioral responses in all perinatal mammals.

“Studying the video was a very detailed process and there was a lot of analysis involved,” Nalluri said. “The data was there, but it had very little meaning until we examined the video and characterized the pups’ movement.”

“It wasn’t that long ago that people believed babies were born with a ‘blank slate’ in terms of development,” Mendez-Gallardo added. “This type of research is very important because it allows us to understand that there’s a lot of learning and development taking place before birth. The fact that amniotic fluid is something that the pups are attracted to tells us that they learn a lot about their environment prenatally.”

Nalluri recently presented her project at the sixth annual Penn State Regional Undergraduate Research Symposium and was awarded second place in the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics category. Held at Penn State Lehigh Valley, the event featured 36 research projects from students attending Penn State Abington, Brandywine, Hazleton, Lehigh Valley, Schuylkill, Worthington Scranton and York.

The Cooper Honors Scholar also showcased her work at Brandywine’s Exhibition of Undergraduate Research Enterprise and Creative Accomplishment (EURECA). EURECA is an annual event that allows undergraduate students to present their research and creative endeavors to the campus community and other guests.

“I strongly believe undergrads can make major contributions to the research process while also benefitting greatly from their experiences,” Mendez-Gallardo said. “Vyshnavi was really dedicated to this project and was very proactive. Her involvement is something you’d see on the graduate level.”

Mendez-Gallardo said their research will soon be published in a psychology journal and Nalluri will be named as an author on the publication. Nalluri plans to go back to school to study medicine. She will spend the next year working at medical clinics to gain more experience in the field before returning to school. 

“This project has taught me so many skills that I’ll use going forward,” she said. “It has given me new areas of interest and showed me future research possibilities that I wasn’t aware of.”