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Hopping into Research

Hill Fellowship winner Kami Cole studies kangaroo rats to understand locomotion

By Tara Roberts

Kami Cole spends her days convincing kangaroo rats to hop on treadmills – and what she discovers could influence the future of prosthetics and robotics.

Cole, who has received a Hill Undergraduate Research Fellowship to support her research, works in the University of Idaho’s Comparative Neuromuscular Biomechanics Lab under the guidance of Craig McGowan, an assistant professor of biological sciences.

“The overall goal of the lab is to determine how animals, including humans, move in their natural environment,” says Cole, a junior microbiology major from Albion, Idaho.

Kangaroo rats are native to the western United States and are useful for research because, unlike the majority of animals, they are bipedal – they move using their two back limbs.

“Understanding how animals with a different gait move in their environment can help give us ideas for designing prosthetics for people to help them navigate different terrain, or even for robots,” Cole says.

Cole started out analyzing data for the lab during her sophomore year and now runs her own project. She designed and built a box that allows the mouse-sized kangaroo rats to hop on a typical treadmill. One side is fitted with Plexiglas so she can record high-speed video of the hopping rodents.

Cole encourages the rats to hop at different inclines and analyzes the video, tracking information such as the amount of time the rats’ feet are in contact with the treadmill as they move. This helps her determine which methods of movement the rats use most frequently to propel themselves uphill.

After earning her bachelor’s degree, Cole plans to study to be a physician’s assistant. She expects her lab experience will prepare her well for the medical field.

“Having to not only conduct my own research but also critically evaluate others’ research will be beneficial, especially as fast as research evolves in medicine,” she says.

Cole says her time in the lab is an enjoyable change of pace from her microbiology classwork, and it also gives her the opportunity to put her classroom learning into practice.

“Honestly, when I first started I didn’t think I’d ever be conducting my own research study,” she says. “It’s gone so much further than I expected or hoped.”