Steve Kinsey, PhD, enjoyed conducting much of his dissertation research, but not the part where he had to remove spleens from mice. Kinsey, who recently received his psychobiology doctorate from Ohio State University, loves animals. He and his fiancée actually moved to a bigger house to accommodate their menagerie: two cats, two dogs and a tank of fish.
"We used to have a bunch of pet rats also," says Kinsey. "But the reason I don't have any rats now is they don't live that long. You get really attached to them and they die after two years."
In fact, it was the opportunity to work with animals every day that attracted Kinsey to the field of psychology. As an undergraduate at the University of California, Davis, he spent hundreds of hours observing how titi monkeys divvy up parental duties, and before he entered grad school, he worked with rhesus monkeys, studying the effect of stress on their behavior. Most recently, he moved from primates to mice, studying how social stress changes their behavior and immune systems.
As with his pet rats, Kinsey knew he'd become attached to his lab mice. However, he felt the research was important--it could eventually help reduce heart disease in humans-so he decided to use the research animals, and pledged to make sure they'd be treated well.
A commitment to humane treatment is among one of Kinsey's major contributions to the laboratory, says his adviser, David Padgett, PhD, a microbiology professor at the university. Another is his insight into animal behavior. The only psychology student in his lab, Kinsey introduced Padgett and his immunology students to tests for anxious behavior in the mice. The biologists, in turn, taught Kinsey to probe the inner workings of the animals' immune system, searching for dysfunctions that can lead to heart disease, arthritis and other chronic illnesses.
Kinsey's drive to cross disciplines is rare among graduate students, Padgett says.
"Steve had his eyes open: He realized that a multidisciplinary approach is where science is going," says Padgett. "He has the gift of being able to see beyond the notebook or the experiment that is right in front of him."
It takes guts to dive into a new field midway through your graduate training, Padgett notes, and that is precisely what Kinsey did.
During his first two years at Ohio State, Kinsey worked with psychology professor Randy J. Nelson, PhD, exploring how stress slows wound healing in Siberian hamsters. But Kinsey was increasingly interested in how that stress affected the animals at the cellular level.
It just so happens that Padgett's lab was investigating exactly that question. Unfortunately, Padgett's appointment was in the university's dentistry school. So, Kinsey called the biologist and asked him if he would join the psychology department as an adjunct professor.
The bold move paid off. Padgett got the appointment, and Kinsey's first adviser wished him well.
"His new mentor...is interested in the effects of social stressors on immune function, so it made sense for Steve to work with him," says Nelson. "I was pleased to see him move on to such a wonderful opportunity."
To get up to speed in his new lab, Kinsey dove into biology textbooks and signed up for immunology courses.
"I had to learn a second set of jargon, some of which overlaps with psychology," he recalls. "When [psychologists] refer to CSF, we are talking about cerebrospinal fluid. However, immunologists also commonly refer to CSF, or colony-stimulating factor, a growth factor for white blood cells."
The training helped Kinsey design his dissertation research on mice's biological and behavioral response to social stress. He found that, two weeks after being attacked by a cage mate, the animals acted anxious and had elevated levels of inflammatory cytokines-intercellular signals that spur the body's immune response-in their blood. What's more, cells Kinsey extracted from the animals' spleens showed decreased sensitivity to hormones that reduce inflammation.
"On one hand, the spleen cells are saying 'Let's make more inflammation,' but on the other hand these cells are also unresponsive to the shut-off signal," Kinsey says.
Kinsey's line of research helps explain the link between stress and such illnesses as rheumatoid arthritis and heart disease, which are exacerbated when the body's immune system becomes hyperactive, notes Padgett. Past research found that physical restraint stress decreases immune response in mice. This line of research finds the opposite effect with social stress-challenges that are perhaps more common in humans, Kinsey notes.
"If you think about the immune system as a continuum, you don't want to be pushed too far in one direction," he says. "Social defeat seems to skew animals toward inflammation."
Such research could eventually lead to practical applications, his adviser adds.
"We might actually be able to help reduce heart disease and any stress-related disease if we can see how the immune system and stress are intertwined," Padgett says.
Kinsey's goal is to help prevent inflammatory illness in humans, but it's the joy of working with animals that keeps him motivated during long nights in the lab.
"I am grateful...to the animals, that they are helping us. And that really drives me to make sure I am using the smallest number of animals possible with the experiment," says Kinsey.
In fact, Kinsey loves animals so much, he spends four of his off-hours each week volunteering at the Capital Area Humane Society in Hilliard, Ohio. There, he walks dogs and plays with cats-activities that provide the animals with needed exercise and help to make them more adoptable, says Jane Harding, a dog trainer for the humane society.
"You can have a dog in a kennel that starts to not care about people," says Harding. "Any interaction that you can have with them helps them stay social."
In addition to pitching in around the kennel, Kinsey volunteers at Humane Society fund-raising events, making balloon animals and running children's activities. At one recent fund-raiser, Kinsey taught Girl Scouts about animal care while making homemade dog biscuits with them. Unfortunately, the oven stopped working. So, Kinsey ran home and baked them in his own kitchen, Harding recalls.
"He always goes above and beyond," she says.
Kinsey received his degree in psychology in December, and he plans to seek out postdoctoral training in immunology. The psychologist doesn't yet know what lab he'll land in, but one thing is for sure: There'll be animals around.