The Importance of Animal Studies According to Research Students

For many students, working with animals is the first true hands-on taste of biology offered in the classroom. Via dissection they are able to see with their own eyes the structure of body that, while vastly different from our own human ones, bears enough of a resemblance to be informative and, for some, inspiring. It’s one of the most essential lessons to learn going forward with animal experiments:  even though what one sees in the animal trial may not directly translate, the techniques and underlying principles present in the trial translate to humans and provide vital information when hypothesizing how a trial may affect a human.

When it comes to psychology, nothing can replace witnessing with one’s own eyes how fundamental concepts such as conditioning “click” into place when working with lab rates, Danielle Weber (’14) says. Danielle is a psychology major at the College and worked with conditioning rats as part of her research methods course. “You realize that it can take just a few mistakes on your part to through the learning off track; it can be frustrating but also extremely rewarding once the rat learns. You can’t understand that just by reading a textbook.” Animal studies, according to Danielle, help snap concepts into focus and really bring research out of the theoretical realm and into reality.

For this reason, when Judith Graham posted to the Association of Health Care Journalists critiquing the coverage of animal trials in the media, stating “researching findings in other members of the animal kingdom do not tell you anything about what will happen in people, necessarily”,  it ruffled more than a few feathers. This argument challenged fundamental practices about research, mainly you start with trials on animals (such as lab rats, worms, and insects), see how the experiment or trial affects them, and use that knowledge to decide whether or not to go forward with the trial should be brought to humans.

Based on Danielle’s comments and those of Brianna Waller (’14), a neuroscience major, Graham is missing a fundamental point. Even if the research does not directly translate to humans, the practices therein do, or at least provide a basis for what is not a viable option.

Graham takes issue with animal studies being reported en masse, as she feels they could raise false hope or provide false information. It’s certainly true that the media has jumped the gun on research in the past, but this does not invalidate the worth of the indications animal studies provide (and is usually the fault of the media rather than the science, when it’s really boiled down to it- I’m looking at you, anti-vaxers). Briana’s experiments, both in her research lab and in her biology courses themselves, have had her experiment with altering conditions on frog embryos and elucidating the biological pathways of nematodes with the intent of applying the knowledge gained to human diseases and their treatment; now, it would be ridiculous to argue that a frog and a human embryo are identical, but it’s a fair guess that if something is harmful to a frog embryo it will be harmful to a human embryo, and that’s essential information for pregnant mothers to know. These studies provide an indication, and that indication can be the difference between life and death.

“It always drives the point home that we, as humans, are animals even though humans as a whole forget this,” Briana states. However, she does warn against relying too much on animal studies- not because she believes them to be irrelevant or to not translate, but because of the ethics attached to animal experiments.

The utility of animal studies, however, when in the hands of those who respect and understand the value of their animal subjects (as Briana emphasizes), cannot be contested. A student of neuroscience or psychology can assure you of that.

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