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2012 CAREER Award Winner Daniel McCloskey: Tapping Into the Hive Mind

December 12, 2012 | Awards, Faculty

Daniel McCloskey, an Assistant Professor of Psychology at the College of Staten Island (CSI) has won the prestigious Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) award from the National Science Foundation.  He will also be receiving 10% in matching funds from the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research as part of our CAREER Award Incentive.

McCloskey grew up on Long Island and is a product of the State University of New York (SUNY) system. He spent his freshman year at SUNY Stony Brook, but  decided to transfer to SUNY Oswego in his sophomore year, where he declared his major almost by chance when he received a memorial scholarship from a family friend, which required that the recipient be a psychology major.

In Paul Stewart’s lab at SUNY Oswego, McCloskey found both the research experience he was looking for and excellent mentorship. He became much more interested in the biological aspects of psychology and in the relatively new study of neuroplasticity—how the brain is capable of changing in response to new experiences and environmental stimuli.

After he graduation, Dr. McCloskey returned to SUNY Stony Brook for his doctoral work and joined Brenda Anderson’s lab. McCloskey’s doctoral thesis explored how exercise can protect the brain, particularly in the case of epilepsy. He sought to understand how the property of brain plasticity could be channeled to achieve positive outcomes.  His dissertation found that when rats with epilepsy exercise prior to seizure their brains are protected.

McCloskey stresses the importance of good mentoring. He believes that both Paul Stewart and Brenda Anderson saw potential in him that he was not even aware of himself at the time. McCloskey brings a similar optimism and enthusiasm to his teaching and mentoring at CSI. It is very rewarding for him to take students, who may not be performing at the highest level when they enter his lab, and “see something instilled in them that sets them on fire and then they finish their degrees with amazing success.” McCloskey was attracted to CUNY by this commitment to mentoring and student success.

McCloskey joined the faculty of the Department of Psychology at CSI in September 2007 and has forged a solid foundation there. He shares resources and collaborates with his colleagues, and has mentored numerous doctoral candidates, Master’s students, and undergraduates in his lab.

One of his first priorities as a new faculty member was to invest in state-of-the-art equipment, which was made possible using his start-up package and Decade of Science funding. McCloskey believes that investment in equipment is important because it attracts both students and collaborators. McCloskey’s lab operates the only patch clamp recording equipment on Staten Island. Faculty and students from CUNY and from neighboring institutions use the equipment. McCloskey is building research networks; he collaborates and publishes with these outside researchers.  Grant reviewers are impressed with the facilities at CSI and state as much in their reviews.

McCloskey is one of only a handful of neuroscientists who work with mole rats. In April 2007, when he was in the process of applying to CSI, he says, “I came across a fact about naked mole rats that changed my life forever.” He read in a fact-a-day calendar that his sister-in-law had given him that in addition to being neither moles nor rats, naked mole rats are coldblooded. That they cannot control their body temperature is very intriguing for neuroscientists. Seizures and temperature are highly related, and for McCloskey, who was studying epilepsy and seizures, the opportunity to learn how the brain responds to temperature in an animal population was invaluable. McCloskey has found a very high incidence of epilepsy in mole rats, which suggests another route for further investigation.

Naked mole rats are very long lived, don’t feel certain types of pain, don’t get cancer, and thrive under very low oxygen conditions in crowded, cramped tunnels.  They are also the only animals, other than insects, to have evolved to live in cooperative groups with a queen and one breeding male. McCloskey states that the social organization of mole rats provides a perfect test case for furthering the study of social neuroscience.  “Looking at what part of the brain is coordinating social interaction is still so untapped—as a psychologist and someone who is interested in the brain that is like the holy grail.” Dr. McCloskey’s CAREER project will investigate how the brain orchestrates social behavior among members of a group. His team will use social network analysis to identify mole rats with particularly high or low levels of social behavior and will then measure whether brain expression of the hormone, oxytocin, corresponds to these individual differences.
McCloskey developed a novel approach to tracking the movement and behavior of his colony of mole rats. Each mole rat has a chip embedded under its skin, and ring readers that use toll collection technology are positioned all over the cage.

Because of the high volume of data produced (over 3 million events [i.e. animal movements] a week) Dr. McKloskey worked with Dr. Michael Kress, the Vice President for Technology Systems at CSI to develop a state matrix to help manage and interpret the data. This state matrix records the location of each animal and continuously updates the record. This form of collection and analysis is extremely data intensive and would not be possible with out the computational resources made available by the High Performance Computing Center.

Because McCloskey was the first researcher to track the rats round-the-clock, he was the first to show that the rats have a 24-hour day/night or activity/rest schedule. McCloskey is interested in memory and the ways that individual rats in these large family groups recognize each other. He is also interested in trying to figure out if individual rats form bonds, and his research is starting to show that the movement and interaction of colony members is not random. However, many questions remain.  What makes one animal more social than another?  What are their methods of social learning? Why do certain rats tend to pair off or congregate with other rats?

McCloskey plans to design better methods for observing the whole animal so he can conduct more longitudinal studies. McCloskey says that the CAREER award matching funds from the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research will enable him to develop these studies and gain deeper insights into brain activity and social interaction.