How do we find our way around? This is a question that has fascinated Dr. Darlene Skinner for decades.
Dr. Skinner, a full professor with the Department of Psychology’s very active behavioural neurosciences group, Faculty of Science, is an expert in the field of spatial cognition. Looking around her lab, you’ll see platforms on wheels, markings on the wall and a lot of eager students.
Dr. Skinner’s work with rats is helping researchers to understand how the brain gets its cues from its surroundings. It is her extensive experience with animal models that led to her being an obvious choice as the new chair of the Animal Care Committee.
The Animal Care Committee is responsible for the ethical assessment of all protocols for animal care and use in research and teaching at the St. John’s, Ocean Sciences Centre, Marine Institute and Grenfell campuses.
Dr. Skinner has been a member of the committee since 2012 and has filled in as chair on a number of occasions.
“At Memorial we pride ourselves on the fact that our researchers are provided with the highest level of education, training and support when it comes to animal care,” said Dr. Skinner, whose research on brain function has led to a better understanding of the mechanisms involved in spatial learning and navigation.
“Research on rats and mice can advance the field of spatial cognition,” she added. “Current studies in spatial learning are addressing the issue of what animals really learn about their spatial environment. Do they use proximal cues, distal cues, geometry or path integration, or some combination, to locate a hidden goal, and which areas of the brain are recruited when animals use each of these strategies?”
At Memorial, all research projects must be peer reviewed for scientific merit and must receive ethical approval by the Animal Care Committee before any research begins.
Animal models are used ethically, only when necessary, by well-trained researchers and lab assistants, and with the support of the Animal Care Services veterinary and technical staff.
The Canadian Council on Animal Care oversees the care and use of animals in all research at institutions across the country.
Due to the size of Memorial and the diversity of research carried out, becoming familiar with research projects in many different disciplines can be challenging, Dr. Skinner says.
“It is essential the committee have a broad membership so that we have expertise in a variety of fields,” she said. “Right now, in addition to members from Animal Care Services, we have members from the Faculty of Science, including the departments of biology, biochemistry and psychology; the Faculty of Medicine; the Department of Health and Safety; the Marine Institute and the Ocean Sciences Centre.”
‘Diligence and respect’
Dr. Jennifer Keyte, director of Animal Care Services and university veterinarian, says animals are essential to research in many disciplines, and in particular, our understanding of disease and disease prevention for both people and animals.
“We are delighted to have Dr. Skinner take on the role of Animal Care Committee chair,” she said. “She has always shown great diligence and respect in her care and use of animals. That message resonates with her fellow researchers.”
Dr. Skinner received her bachelor of science (hons.) degrees in psychology from Memorial in 1990. She completed her PhD in the Department of Anatomy and Cell Biology at the University of Toronto in 1996 and went on to pursue post-doctoral training in the psychology department at Duke University. She returned to Memorial in 1998 and has been on faculty since that time.