Research Spotlight: An Interview of James Burkett on his 2016 Science Article

By Amielle Moreno

Thank you so much for taking the time to answer some questions on your recent publication for  The Central Sulcus, James. And congratulations! Science is a high impact journal.

Thank you very much!

Dr. James Burkett wearing his hat of voles.

Describe your experience submitting a paper to Science. Compared to other journals, how did their process differ, for better or worse?

It’s extreme science writing. The Science format is terrifyingly short –about 4 pages, or 3 pages without figures. Every line has to convey an enormously vital piece of information. And I had to be confident in every single aspect of the paper – first of all, because it was going to be reviewed by the presiding world experts in my field, but second, because a paper that gets published at that level gets a lot of scientific scrutiny afterward. Plus, I was constantly being reminded about the 95% rejection rate at each step of the process. At the beginning, I was convinced that the most I would get out of submitting would be some expert reviews of my manuscript.

This paper appears to be the culmination of your thesis work. What does it feel like to have years of toil condensed down to four pages?

It was a lot of pressure. There are literally individual sentences that represent more than a year of work. Discussions that could have gone on for pages were condensed to five words. But I ended up loving the short format, actually. It taught me to be essentialist and to write a better story.

Your paper, titled “Oxytocin dependent consolation behavior in rodents” uses the pair-bonding behavior of prairie voles as a model for consolation behavior. Would you describe yourself as more of a prairie or meadow vole?

Prairie vole.

Would you ever lie to a reporter?


Interesting. In this study, one partner of a pair-bonded prairie vole couple was removed from the home cage to experience stress via shock or no shock, then returned to the cage to “demonstrate” an amount of anxiety and distress-like behavior, while the other partner “observed” the returned partner. When was the last time you cried?

Hodor 😦

The visual representation of the feeling one gets while reading a reviewer’s notes on your submitted publication. Image from sbnation.

That must have been difficult for you. Were you pair-bonded with any rodents who were available for licking and grooming (“allogrooming”) consolation?

I had my wife with me, but to be honest we focused more on hugging rather than licking and hairstyling.

I ask because in your paper, allogrooming was interpreted as an affiliative form of contact. When the demonstrator experienced the shock condition and was returned to their partner, the time then spent allogrooming increased. This appears to have two possible causes: the observer initiating allogrooming to comfort a distressed demonstrating partner, or the demonstrator soliciting comforting touch to ease its distress. How did you determine that it was indeed the former and not the latter?

This is a very insightful and delicate question. In fact, we don’t know for certain whether the stressed partners solicit grooming from the observers. However, we do know that consolation is not just a response to a stimulus or a signal – observers experience vicarious anxiety and stress in the presence of the stressed demonstrator, and have brain activation consistent with vicarious pain. We also know that observers only console individuals they are familiar with, which wouldn’t be expected if they’re just trying to get the stressed individual to stop doing something they don’t like. Observers are having physiological, behavioral and neural responses consistent with an empathetic response.

Pair-bonding frenzy. Image from Imgfave.

The anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) showed significantly higher levels of FOS-positive cells in observers exposed to a stressed partner. When an oxytocin receptor inhibitor is injected into the ACC of observers before the consolation test, the increase in partner-directed grooming was abolished. Tell me, James, why doesn’t my mother love me?

Umm … I’m not sure, let’s go ask my collaborator in the Psychiatry Department. Once a week for 50 minutes.

You postulate that oxytocin signaling within the anterior cingulate might modulate consolation through “physiological, emotional, and or behavioral responses.” Would you expound on that, because obviously Science wasn’t going to give you the space to?

This is one of those points where five words replaced a paragraph. Basically, we observed that blockade of oxytocin receptor signaling in the ACC, or throughout the brain, completely prevented the observer’s consoling response. However, we don’t really know if the treatment prevented the observer from noticing the partner’s distress, prevented them from “feeling” it or “caring” about it, or directly blocked their motivation or ability to mount a prosocial response. Separating out those different possibilities would have required a lot more experiments, which would all have been very interesting but I wanted to graduate.

The prelimbic cortex (PLC) and nucleus accumbens (NACS) of observers exposed to stressed demonstrators have no more f#@*s to give. Image from Science.

Consolation behavior could be considered empathy-based. You might already be aware, certain professions are associated with higher rates of psychopathy, a diagnosis frequently characterized by a lack of empathy. Please comment on the likely functionality of CEO’s and Lawyer’s anterior cingulate cortices.

This is really fascinating. Scott Lilienfeld in the Psychology Department does a lot of research on the “successful psychopath.” A lot of professions require people to suppress their empathy and emotional responses in order to be successful, which is easier if you have lower empathy in the first place. Surgeon is a classic example – they need to suppress their natural emotional response in order to cut into a patient, a technique they call “cognitive reappraisal.” A CEO that is sensitive to the situations and emotions of the thousands of employees below them might be great as a boss, but he or she won’t necessarily be great at transferring wealth into the hands of shareholders, which is the CEO’s real job. So, psychopaths may be naturally better at these jobs, or having these jobs makes you a little more psychopathic, or both.

A quick shot of intranasal oxytocin, or an AAV overexpressing oxytocin receptors in the ACC, might make these people nicer to be around – but probably worse at their jobs.

I’m not going to call you back after our date, because I can’t feel. Image from ACTIFIT.

Could oxytocin receptor antagonist injections to the ACC be a model for psychopathy? And if so, could it explain my mother’s behavior?

I honestly think this is one of the more exciting possibilities for this research. The primary defining characteristic of psychopathy is a lack of empathy for others. By learning more about the biological mechanisms that guide empathy, we can learn more about how they can go wrong in disorders like psychopathy, and possibly how to treat them.

And about your mother, let’s ask that collaborator in Psychiatry. He has an opening Thursdays at 3. Bring your insurance card.

Do you remember a particularly entertaining run of your experiment?

Near the end of my experiments, Kerry Ressler left for Harvard, taking all the equipment I had been using with him. I absolutely had to run a few more experiments that required a fear conditioning chamber, so I cobbled a conditioning chamber together from random parts he left behind. Then I literally had to have someone stand outside the testing room with a hand timer, play tones from YouTube, and flip a switch to deliver shocks.

Dr. Ressler dropping the “H-bomb” on Emory. Image from Wikimedia.

You conclude your paper by proposing that consolation behavior in prairie voles indicates that consolation doesn’t require advanced cognitive capacities. Could it also be the case that scientists have underestimated the cognitive abilities of nonhuman animals?

My coauthor, Elissar Andari (also my wife), will be very happy to hear that you asked that! She criticized that part of the manuscript as saying, “voles are too dumb to have cognitive empathy.” When I wrote that, I was actually addressing a longstanding theory in animal psychology that suggested that consoling responses were only observed in “large brained” species because they had to be sophisticated enough to understand the situation and mental state of the distressed animal. It is not currently thought that “small brained” rodents have that level of sophistication, but other experiments on rescuing behavior in rats (and even in ants!) may soon turn that assumption on its head. Coauthor Frans de Waal also just published a book, “Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?”, where he argues that science has a long, misguided history of judging animal intelligence based on their ability to understand and solve human-like problems.

How might we request a correction to your “acknowledgments” section so that it thanks me personally for assisting with your microscope needs?

Oh. Well. This is awkward. I just remembered, I suddenly have somewhere I need to be.

Thank you again for your time, James and congratulations on your recent success!

Thank you! And, um, say hi to your mom for me?

I sure will.

Check out the publication here.

Hi! My name is Claire, and this is how I got to Emory.

By Claire McGregor

claire_headFor the past two years, I’ve lived in a small town in Northern China.  The area is known for coal production, pollution, and particularly delicious vinegar. I lived and worked at Shanxi Agricultural University, the only agricultural university in China actually located in a rural area.  My town, Taigu, was so small that most people had never heard of it before and assumed that I lived in and was mispronouncing Thailand.

I taught English classes to mostly graduate students and some undergrads, and had a lot of time on my hands for badminton and majiang.* During the holidays– we had four months off a year– I took overnight trains out of my province and traveled across China as well as other countries in Asia.

My house in Taigu
My house in Taigu

Taigu was isolated. It was so small and unimportant that sometimes people tried to prevent me from getting off the train at my stop because they couldn’t imagine I would want to go there. My town had six foreigners, all Oberlin graduates teaching English, and we were all neighbors located in the center of campus. We were actually part of the school tour, and our houses were constantly being photographed for both their traditional architecture as well as the foreign teachers they contained.

A view of Taigu from the drum tower
A view of Taigu from the drum tower

I was sent to Taigu on a fellowship from the Oberlin Shansi Memorial Association, which was founded in 1908 as a direct result of the Boxer Rebellion. My job was to increase understanding between Asia and the US through teaching English, studying Chinese, and blogging about the experience, with the long-term goal of avoiding more Boxer Rebellions. At the time of writing, we have had a complete success in this goal.

Hulling millet in the lab
Hulling millet in the lab

You may be wondering to yourself what kind of lab work I did during this time, or how this relates to my interest in neuroscience. It doesn’t, and I didn’t do any lab work, except for one day spent hulling genetically modified millet and another visiting the entomologist lab to ogle the horrific diversity of monsters insects that had been captured by students (I feel it is important to mention here that students in China do not get to choose their majors, and if I had been saddled with “catching centipedes” as a major, I probably would not have made it through higher education). I also supplemented my $500 a month salary by correcting the grammar of scientific essays about mango peels and speciation of shrubberies.

Specimens from the entomology department
Specimens from the entomology department

Before moving to China, I majored in neuroscience at Oberlin College and did research involving estrogen, LH, Alzheimer’s Disease, and schizophrenia. My PI had me in the lab up until graduation day, and she probably would have asked me to come in that day had she been able to find me. Ten days after graduation I was in China, looking forward to seeing what life as a non-scientist was like. One month in and I was ready to be back in lab, and one year after that I was preparing to apply to graduate school.

Me with a class of graduate students
Me with a class of graduate students

After two years away from home, all I really wanted in a school was for it to be located next to my grandparents’ house. Emory did not fit that description. In fact, I think I went to the website at least five times before considering applying, immediately exiting out upon seeing the word ‘Atlanta.’ On the sixth time, irritated that my hopes and desires had once again led me to Emory, I idly clicked on the application link. There, at the top, was a little notice saying that the application was free if I submitted it before Halloween.

A community opera performance
A community opera performance

Did I mention that I was making $500 a month and traveling the world in my spare time? Did you know that taking the GRE abroad costs even more money than in the US? In my head I weighed the two factors, living in Atlanta versus no application fee. Eventually, deciding I had nothing to lose, especially because applying didn’t mean attending and as the first application it was totally just a practice application anyway, I went all in.

Our two month winter break began in January, and I went home for the first time during my fellowship. During that time I was a bridesmaid in a wedding, met my new nephew, celebrated Spring Festival, hung out with my wonderful grandparents, and interviewed at Emory.

It was a beautiful day– perfectly sunny and in the high 40s– and everyone kept apologizing for the weather. The students were suspiciously laid-back and happy, and the faculty actually seemed to know some of their names. The word ‘collaboration’ was thrown around, and people actually meant it. The worst thing I could get people to complain about the program was Atlanta traffic. That’s it– that’s the only downside of being a neuroscientist at Emory. Even the outsides of the buildings were shiny (after living in a city that got regular dust-storms, I notice these things). As I was driven back to the airport, I remember looking at the houses we passed and wondering if I was going to live in one of them someday and how I was going to break the news to my grandparents.

I was accepted two days before returning to China. I didn’t have a phone that worked in the US, so I got the message by email. I decided to play it cool and wait an entire week before accepting my acceptance, during which I looked up the school colors and bought an Emory t-shirt.

SAU campus
SAU campus

Come spring in Taigu, when the dust storms were overtaking the campus and the students had run out of excuses for missing class and were telling me they couldn’t make it because they had “something to do,” I started searching craigslist for my perfect Atlanta apartment and my perfect Atlanta life. I looked up student groups and labs and waited breathlessly to be assigned a neurobuddy (Hi, James!).

I came back to the US on July 24th, and on August 15th I drove my entire life to Atlanta, and I have not looked back. It’s been really wonderful to meet you all.

*Incidentally, if anyone is interested in playing badminton or majiang, please give me a call.


2013 GDBBS Banquet Highlights

By Amielle Moreno

What better way to celebrate the scientific progress of humankind than to attend a private country club at requires $40,000 admittance, over $6,000 in yearly dues and uses an average uses 312,000 gal of water a day?

Meet your new boss! Not the golfer, the kid next to him
Meet your new boss! Not the golfer, the kid next to him

The night began with a full bar on a patio over looking the greens, and the Neuroscience Program was well represented. Most attendants had a difficult time interpreting the “business casual” dress code. In a bold move, most erred on the side of formal, making for a beautiful sea of dresses. Much to the chagrin of our Canadian Director of the Neuroscience Program, Shawn Hochman, not a drop of clamato juice could be found.

No one had to tell Mallory what business casual was! And Yvonne looks fine in this reclaimed LBD. From left to right: Yvonne Ogbonmwan, David Ehrlich, Mallory Bowers
No one had to tell Mallory what business casual was! And Yvonne looks fine in this reclaimed LBD.
From left to right: Yvonne Ogbonmwan, David Ehrlich, Mallory Bowers
From Left to Right: Paul Evans, Gary Longstreet, Kara Kittelberger, Amielle Moreno, Sam Rose, and Kelly Lohr
From Left to Right: Paul Evans, Gary Longstreet, Kara K., Amielle Moreno, Sam Rose, and Kelly Lohr

Rumors that the bar would shut down at any time spread like brush fire throughout the night. Many savvy grad students began hoarding drinks and rejoining the growing bar line moments after receiving their orders.

To quote Wilfred, “Carne diem!”
To quote Wilfred, “Carne diem!”

With two glasses of wine banked, I was ready to eat the red meat alternative offered by the catering. The other option was the salmon. Vegetarians were asked to leave.

From Left To Right: Felisha Norrington, Kathy Reding, Gary Longstreet, Michelle Giddens
From Left To Right: Felisha Norrington, Kathy Reding, Gary Longstreet, Michelle Giddens
Celebrity sighting: Monica Taylor! Thank you Michael Jiang for being a cover for this clandestine photo.
Celebrity sighting: Monica Taylor! Thank you Michael Jiang for being a cover for this clandestine photo.

It wasn’t long into dinner before I figured out what this night was really all about: the centerpieces.  Like jewels glimmering at each table, the promise of their depths was mesmerizing. My mission for the night became clear: I had to collect them all.

All I need is a miracle/ All I neeeed is yoooou!
All I need is a miracle/ All I neeeed is yoooou!

Due to formalities, most centerpieces remained unclaimed at the center of their tables, during dinner. I nonchalantly secured the one at my table to the protests of Monica Taylor, The Director of Student Development, from whom you receive ten e-mails a week. But how do you argue with “I’m a poor graduate student!” and a tear factory fueled by daddy issues? I scanned the room for more easy targets.

I found my mark, a table made up almost exclusively by of Neuroscience professors including Dr. Yoland Smith, Dr. Machelle Pardue, Dr. Dieter Jager and Dr. Shawn Hochman. I sidled up to an adjacent table with the help of my flag football connections and bided my time. I decided that I would make my move upon the conclusion of the guest speaker’s speech, during the obligatory applause.

Yes… eat us your apple crisps a’la moda, professors, soon your centerpiece will be mine! Meanwhile a diagram of any hopes graduate students have for future careers is displayed on the projector.
Yes… eat us your apple crisps a’la moda, professors, soon your centerpiece will be mine! Meanwhile a diagram of any hopes graduate students have for future careers is displayed on the projector.

The speaker, Dr William G. Rice, who joined us from the private sector, made a solid attempt to entertain the mixed audience of professors and students and he failed on both accounts. One Neuroscience students described his speech as “so boring” and elaborated by saying, “I was sitting right next to him and I still didn’t know what he was talking about.” Another anonymous source admitted that they did not know what the speaker talked about because they left halfway through. Thus, by attempting to please everyone, he ended up pleasing no one.

Professors, they’re just like us!
Professors, they’re just like us!

My plan had worked; soon the Professors were lethargic from their gluttony. When the clapping began, I swooped in to grab the centerpiece, making eye contact with Michelle Pardue and saying “thank you very much” before retreating with my precious.

Once they started to give awards to people other than me, I got bored and upon the insistence of the Security Team at Druid Hills Golf Club, I decided to leave.

I would like to sincerely congratulate all of the award winners but especially those from our Neuroscience program. The honor of Student of the Year went to our own David Ehrlich. If anything, with David’s seniority, he’s like two graduate students. Jordan Koch won the outreach/community service award. Paul Evans won the Student Leadership Award for being the president of everything and Rachel Stewart Allen won the Student Mentor award. I would like to congratulate all of the other Fellows in our program for their achievements. Their efforts make our program stronger and inspire us to do more.

I took my award home with me.

Buckle up! I think they called the cops…
Buckle up! I think they called the cops…

Grad School through the eyes of a PRISM fellow

By Alex Poplawsky, Field Reporter

Originally published February 2009.

As all other graduate school recruits,  my interests were to be accepted to a  high caliber academic institution and to  develop myself as a future professional  in the neuroscience  field. To me, this meant joining  a rigorous research program  while being given the  opportunity and support to  further myself as an instructor.  I realized at that time that no matter who I worked for, university, industry, the government,  etc., half of my job  would be to communicate facts  and ideas to others. Emory  quickly caught my attention as the only  university that I toured to emphasize the  availability of and to encourage the use  of several programs offered to graduate  students that would strengthen me as an  instructor.

Alex Poplawsky
Alex Poplawsky

In my fourth year as a graduate student,  I became a NSF funded GK-12 graduate training fellow in the Problems  and Research to Integrate Science and  Mathematics (PRISM) program here at  Emory. As a PRISM fellow, I am currently being trained to implement problem-based learning (PBL) in a high  school chemistry class. PBL is an emerging technique that constructs a plot driven story around a purposely ill structure  problem  that must be solved  by small student groups. During  this process, students must  identify issues that they do not  fully understand, research these issues,  create hypotheses and ultimately make an  informed decision that will serve as a  solution. Conversely, the teacher acts to facilitate the students as they learn instead  of spoon feeding answers. In my experience, the students are actively engaged  in daily classroom activities, as  opposed to passively listening to the instructor,  and are highly motivated to  learn. They also walk away from the lesson  with a greater understanding and  experience on how to become autonomous  learners, which is a primary  goal of my emerging  teaching philosophy. Ultimately, I believe that PRISM  is providing me with the formal  knowledge, tools and experience  to become the effective  instructor that I hope to  be. For more information on PRISM,  view feb102009

Neuroscience Student Terrence Wright earns Prestigious ARCS fellowship

Originally published September 2008.

Terrence Wright
Terrence Wright

Congratulations to Terrence Wright for recently earning the prestigious ARCS Fellowship. Terrence has been with us at Emory since 2004 after earning his MS in biological sciences from California State University in San Marcos. Initially under the IGERT fellowship, he currently pursuing his graduate education in the lab of Dr. Ron Calabrese. The ARCS fellowship stands for Achievement Rewards for College Scientists. The Atlanta Chapter of ARCS offers scholarships for scientists and engineers in specific programs at Emory (including GDBBS), GA Tech, Morehouse College, and Univ. of Georgia. To be sulcus97eligible, students must be nominated by the their program, have a 3.5 GPA, and be a U.S citizen. Terrence competed with other Emory program nominees by submitting a research summary paragraph and giving a 15- min research presentation in lay terms. The mission of the ARCS Foundation is to provide scholarships to academically outstanding United States citizens studying to complete their degrees in science, medicine and engineering, thereby contributing to the worldwide advancement of science and technology. In the 2007- 2008 academic year Atlanta awarded $198,500 to support 34 scholars, cumulatively some $2 million to 393 science and engineering scholars since 1992. Once selected, the scholar is supported until completion of the degree, as long as academic excellence is maintained. Only four GDBBS students were se- Terrence Wright lected for this award this year and it is a very impressive accomplishment. Congratulations Terrence on your success!!!

Just a Small Flight from Texas

Amy Mahan, 1st Year Student

Originally published September 2009.

sulcus43As I prepare to start my first year in the Emory Neuroscience program I am excited about what lies ahead. What attracted me to Emory initially was the depth of the program and the diversity of research opportunities that would be available to me. But what sealed the decision for me was coming to Atlanta in February and meeting the intelligent and friendly students who were very eager to socialize with us during recruitment weekend, and interviewing with the very personable faculty whom all seemed very passionate about their research. The smaller dinner group at Café Lilly with a few students and faculty that shared my research interest, in particular, was unique to Emory’s recruitment weekend and allowed me to mingle more closely with my future friends and colleagues. Together, everyone made me feel very certain that Emory was the place I wanted to be.

I moved to Atlanta in May, started a rotation in June, and have not once doubted my decision to come to Emory. Working in the exciting research lab of Dr. Larry Young, I have gotten to look at the role of AMPA receptors of the nucleus accumbens in social behaviors of the prairie vole. In addition, I have been working to sequence the ligands Urocortin II and III of the CRF system in hopes to better understand how this system affects social behavior in prairie voles.

In addition, I have gotten to explore Atlanta and got to know some of the graduate students while rotating. Watching World Cup soccer at the Brewhouse, eating pizza at Little Five Points, exploring downtown Decatur, or playing pick-up soccer at the Clairmont campus with my “neurobuddy” and other graduate students made me feel much more at home in Atlanta then I did in May. This summer has confirmed what I was convinced of after interviewing in February…that Emory is the perfect place to pursue my graduate studies. I look forward to starting my classes and meeting the other first year students this fall.