A Unique Undergrad Experience

By Ellen Glover

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Back in 2014, Annie Lynch, a sophomore at the time, was scrolling through her emails and happened upon one from CEWiT promoting research opportunities including one from the School of Public Health.

As an exercise science major, she was immediately intrigued by the work of Dr. Hannah Block, an assistant professor in IU’s Kinesiology Department. Dr Block was building an experiment that looked at perceptual learning – or the ability to use one’s sensory systems to respond to stimuli – and how it affects the central nervous system in the brain.

“We were hoping to learn whether a perceptual learning task with no motor component would show an effect on motor systems,” explains Block, who said she was inspired by another project others did in 2010 that showed motor learning affected sensory perception. “That was surprising to me, so I wondered if the reverse is true.”

To do this, Block, Lynch and two other graduate assistants, Felipe Munoz-Rubke and Jasmine Mirdamadi covered their subjects’ left hands with a white square blocking their fingertips from their view and then asked them to identify their finger position while gradually moving the square away. This was so that the participants would experience spatially misaligned information. To see if this influenced the motor cortex, they used transcranial magnetic stimulation, or TMS. They found that perceptual learning affects the motor system at a psychological level, meaning that perceptual motor systems interact with the brain.

Unlike most undergraduates, Lynch was able to contribute first-hand to these findings.

"The research being done in the lab was a bit over my head at first, but thanks to Dr. Block and my amazing research partners, I was slowly walked through the basics,” recalls Lynch. “The information began to build on itself by reading articles, attending lab meetings, and joining other research projects, until I got to where I am today. I always told Hannah that I was her sponge, constantly absorbing information and learning from her.”

Lynch went on to present this research at CEWiT’s Women’s Poster Competition in 2014. She also helped present the findings at six other conferences in Indiana, Illinois, and California, an experience that, Block says, is pretty rare for undergraduate students.

The most remarkable experience for Lynch, however, was when she was actually able to put her name on the research paper as a co-author, a privilege reserved only for those who make significant contributions to the success of the research.

“She contributed intellectually; she wasn’t just pushing buttons,” says Block. “She contributed heavily, and not just as a technician.”

Lynch was even able to write some of the first draft of the paper. “I can’t even imagine having that kind of experience as an undergraduate,” says Block.

Now, after several reviews and edits, the research paper, “Modality-Specific Changes in Motor Cortex Excitability After Visuo-Proprioceptive Realignment” is set to be published in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience this December.

Lynch continued her work with Block until she graduated last year. Now, she is attending a Doctor of Occupational Therapy program at Huntington University and hopes to continue her work as a clinician and eventually earn her PhD. All of these dreams will likely become a reality as a result of her unique undergraduate research experience with Block.

“I think this publication will continuously impact my life, especially as a clinician,” says Lynch. “It helped me stand out while applying for graduate school, and soon it will differentiate me while applying for jobs.”