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Professor John Widholm

Professor John Widholm


College of Charleston Professor Changing the World One Rat at a Time
By Kyle Massenburg

Walk up on the porch. Go through the front door. Scurry up the stairs. Step out to the second floor porch. Enter another door. Turn left. Open the door. Ironically, this is the way to get to the office of Dr. John Widholm, a psychologist conducting extensive behavioral research with rats here at the College of Charleston and not unlike the mazes he tests his rats on.

Dr. Widholm's interest with rats began when he took his first conditioning and learning class at the University of Maryland. "I was absolutely fascinated with the idea of understanding

animal behavior, so I decided to switch my focus from clinical psychology to conditioning and learning." After graduating with a B.A. in 1988, he went on to graduate school at American University in Washington D.C. where he worked under Alan Silberberg, Dr. Widholm's primary graduate advisor. There he studied pigeons to research reinforcement schedules and apply the theories of economics to animal behavior (Behavioral Economics).

Research with pigeons then evolved to research with rats when Dr. Widholm worked as a graduate research assistant at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research. Working in the lab of Richard Bauman, he assisted in conducting behavioral toxicology research by testing different chemicals or drugs on rats. This information was used to determine how certain medicines and chemicals would affect our nation’s troops in the field.

Upon earning his Ph.D. in 1997, Dr. Widholm conducted postdoctoral research at the University of Illinois. There he worked with Susan Schantz testing environmental contaminants, such as PCBs and mercury, on the behavior of rats. "That position was exciting for me because it was a change of research focus for Susan Schantz so it allowed me to use my expertise in operant conditioning while learning a lot about toxicology and neuroscience from Dr. Schantz," Dr. Widholm said.

In his experiments with Susan Schantz, Dr. Widholm discovered that rats exposed in utero to PCB's exhibit learning impairments later in life. The purpose of this research was to help determine whether contaminants found in lakes such as Lake Ontario and Lake Michigan are the cause for lower test scores in children and other possible childhood behavior disorders. "Working there was very rewarding for me and I wouldn't trade it for anything," Dr. Widholm proclaimed.

After his postdoctoral work at the University of Illinois, Dr. Widholm moved to Charleston in 2003 with his wife Diana and his two sons Calvin and Brett. When I asked him what drew him to Charleston he exclaimed, "The hospitality won me over."

At the College of Charleston, Dr. Widholm currently teaches psychology classes such as Conditioning and Learning (lecture and lab), Introduction to Psychology, and Psychology Research Methods. Conditioning and Learning is a favorite of his because "it's an important way to learn and understand who we are and why we do the things we do."

Even though working with the upperclassmen in Conditioning and Learning is very exciting for Dr. Widholm, he also enjoys the fresh minds arriving in his Introduction to Psychology classes. He uses a broad-based approach to the teaching of Introductory Psychology in order to get the students interested. "There’s nothing better than hearing a student tell me they are changing their major to psychology after taking my class," Dr. Widholm said.

Aside from teaching in the classroom, Dr. Widholm is currently doing unique research with rats here at the College of Charleston. The research began in 2004 when one of his students, Meg Williams, was awarded a College of Charleston SURF grant and continues today with his current SURF grant awardee, Meghan Patton. The research deals with ammonium perchlorate (a component found in rocket fuels) and its effect on learning and behavior. This is a potentially important issue because this chemical is contaminating ground water in the Western United States because of high levels in the Colorado River. In addition, farms and other vegetation are being contaminated everyday with ammonium perchlorate via irrigation with contaminated water. By testing ammonium perchlorate exposure in rats, Dr. Widholm can determine whether developmental exposure to this chemical can affect learning and behavior. "At present, very little is known about the behavioral effects of ammonium perchlorate. By doing tests on rats, we are able to come up with risk factors to ultimately keep humans safe," he said.

Since the beginning of the research in 2004, Dr. Widholm has come a long way, but there is much work left to be done to assess whether ammonium perchlorate affects learning and behavior. "

"It is still too early to know what effect, if any, ammonium perchlorate will have, but I use a series of behavioral tasks that assess a wide range of functional domains in the rats including learning, memory, inhibition, and motivation," he says. "If ammonium perchlorate affects some aspect of behavior, I want to make sure that I am able to measure it."

The College of Charleston is definitely very lucky to have such a profound individual working on its faculty. Even after working for the Army in Washington D.C. and other places around the nation, Charleston’s charm and beauty hooked Dr. Widholm in to stay. It's no wonder that College of Charleston is such a highly rated university when we have such innovative professors as Dr. John Widholm who is not only having an effect on students with his research, but the world we live in.