The Science in Psychology: Researching Cognitive Mapping
While some may think of psychology as only dealing with human thoughts and emotions, University of Findlay Assistant Professor of Psychology, Vincent “Gino” Coppola, Ph.D., is showing students first-hand how science ties in through unique research projects.
The Psychology of Neuroscience
As an undergraduate student, Coppola thought he wanted to be a school psychologist. It wasn’t long before he found his calling in another part of the psychology field. “I took a couple classes and I realized that [school psychology] was just not for me,” he reflected. “And, at the same time, I just so happened to be taking my first neuroscience courses and I fell in love with the brain, and how the brain learns, and how it stores memories.”
With a newfound love of neuroscience, coupled with the interest in psychology, he began searching for opportunities to get involved in a research lab. He said, “There was a researcher who studied pigeons and he was looking at how they remember locations and space and how age affects that. So, I got involved in his research and I fell in love with it.”
Re-Homing to University of Findlay
After teaching at a couple larger universities, Coppola realized that large lecture-type teaching was not for him. “I was just talking to faces,” he recalled. “I wasn’t really talking to people that I got to know and interact with more intimately.” The small class sizes at Findlay drew Coppola in because he enjoys the one-on-one work with students and watching each of them grow academically.
“The other thing about Findlay that I liked is their focus on getting undergraduates experience outside of the classroom,” Coppola stated. “Whether that be an internship at a site outside of the University, or getting research experience, they really push their students to get involved more than just coming to class and taking exams.” Coppola came to the University in August 2020 with the hope of sharing his unique research and love of the science in psychology with his students.
A Unique Concept
His primary research interest involves environmental recognition and the effects that age has on it. Coppola explained the mental representation of one’s environment, often called a cognitive map, is what’s used to learn and remember where things are and how to effectively navigate through it.
But, what’s the twist? Coppola studies this unique aspect of the brain by researching pigeons and spiders. “In homing pigeons and whip spiders, they have a unique ability called homing. So, if you move them from their shelter or their home, they will do their best to return as quickly as possible,” he said. “That requires a good understanding, and a good memory, of the environment around their home and how to navigate through that. In my primary model of homing pigeons, I study how aging affects their brain and how the age-related changes in the brain affects their ability to navigate and remember space.”
The research begins with a behavioral study. He explained, “I characterize my animals as either having good memory or bad memory, and usually that’s along the lines of age.” This characterization is based on how the animal responds to certain behavioral tasks and if their memory seems impaired as they age. Once this phase is complete, the brain tissue is examined under a microscope using various dyes and techniques to detect changes and abnormalities.
To pass on his knowledge and passion, similar to his mentor, Coppola invited students to join him in gathering information by participating in the study. “Students are going to learn how to navigate the brain,” he said. “They’re going to learn basic microscope skills and quantitative techniques,” as they relate to things like “sense of smell, tactile, the way that certain surfaces feel, looking at their ability to use visual cues and light.”
Psychology: Bridging the Gap
With a unique insight to physical brain function through neuroscience research, Coppola hopes to expand the scope of expertise within the Psychology Department. “When you think about psychology, everyone thinks human mental disorders, but psychology is much more than that,” he stated. “My colleagues in the department stressed that it is the study of behavior and they all study humans, but it’s more than just the study of human behavior, but the study of behavior in general.”
“My personal goal going forward is to better connect the psychology department with other departments at the university such as biology, the animal science majors, as well as physical therapy,” Coppola said. “I hope animal science majors realize they can take a psychology course, they can learn about animal behavior, animal personality, the way that animals learn and remember things. They can learn something about their brain and how it’s similar to the human brain in terms of function and anatomy. So, I hope to be a bridge between multiple departments.