Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Douglas College science grad studies why some lizards get smart

Reptile researcher Joshua Amiel earned
a PhD from the University of Sydney.
Growing up, Joshua Amiel enjoyed hunting for the small reptiles that lurked near the waterways in Maple Ridge and Pitt Meadows.

Having recently earned a PhD, the biology expert now finds that fascination with cold-blooded critters at the centre of his research.

“I was always interested in catching snakes and amphibians and things,” says Joshua, a former science student at Douglas College.

“I never really thought I would be able to turn that into a career, but I’ve just maintained that interest since childhood.”

These days, lizards are Joshua’s reptile of interest.

During his doctoral research at the University of Sydney in Australia, he studied brain development and intelligence in the three-lined skink, a mountain-dwelling lizard species.

Previous research showed the lizards would grow larger if their eggs were incubated at warmer temperatures.

Joshua had his own question: How would warmer incubation temperatures affect their brains?

To find out the answer, Joshua collected eggs from the wild and incubated them in the lab, either at a warmer or colder temperature.

Once the eggs hatched, he gave the different groups of lizards a series of behavioural tests.

The experiments assessed how intelligently the lizards responded to fake predator attacks, mazes and memory tests.

The results were clear.

“Essentially, the lizards that were incubated at hot temperatures were smarter than the cold ones,” says Joshua, who is back living in Vancouver.

It was an interesting finding, but there was still the question of why the hot-incubated lizards exhibited more intelligence.

Joshua looked into how brain shape differed between the more-intelligent and less-intelligent lizards.

“What I found was really interesting and the reverse of what you would expect,” he says. “The cold-incubated, dumb ones actually had bigger brains than the hot-incubated, smart ones.”

But bigger doesn’t necessarily mean better. As Joshua also found, the brains of the hot-incubated lizards had more neurons that were more densely packed together.

“What that means is the hot-incubated lizards had more processing power in their brains and that could be why they were better at all these cognitive tasks,” he says. “It’s a pretty interesting result.”

His research was praised by those in his field and attracted interest from international media.

Looking back on his path to scientific success, Joshua credits the role Douglas College played.

As a student at the college a decade ago, he says he was struggling without a long-term career goal. Then he took an introductory biology course and something clicked.

“All of a sudden I found something that I was passionate about. From there, my whole future changed,” he says.

After earning an associate degree from Douglas College and a bachelor’s degree from Dalhousie University in Halifax, he was accepted directly into the PhD program at the University of Sydney.

“I attribute a great deal of my success to the strong start Douglas College gave me,” he says.

“There, I was able to explore different career opportunities, find and nurture a passion for biology, and develop myself as a biological researcher.”

More information about the Douglas College Biology program is available here.