The Use of Animals in Teaching and Research at Vassar College

As part of the worldwide scientific community, Vassar science faculty are active researchers and regular contributors to the body of knowledge that increases understanding about astronomy, biology, chemistry, computer science, geology, psychology, and related fields. This body of knowledge is the source of critical information for many areas of investigation across the various scientific disciplines. In addition to their own active research programs, many of which involve advanced student collaborators, Vassar faculty in the sciences actively engage their students in the theory and practice of science at all levels of the curriculum, both in the classroom and the laboratory. Within this larger context of ongoing contemporary science teaching and research, the limited and careful use of animals is an essential part of some of the scientific programs at Vassar.

Frequently Asked Questions

Why are animals used in research in psychology and biology?

The Study of living things, their vital processes, and behaviors has attracted the interest of humans throughout the recorded history of our species. There were practical reasons for this: survival, alleviation of pain and suffering; and intellectual reasons: What is life? How are live forms related? Why have organisms evolved? Why and how do we think or feel emotions? Biology and psychology, their branch disciplines such as botany, population biology, neuroscience, etc., and their interdisciplinary branches such as biochemistry, biopsychology, etc., focus on life processes. It is not possible to study these fields without studying living things.


What issues do Vassar faculty consider when they make decisions about the use of live animals in teaching or research programs?

Whenever teaching programs involve labs using live animals, there is serious consideration by faculty members about the rationale and pedagogical importance underlying the use of animals in the particular teaching laboratory. When alternatives to the use of live animals meet the pedagogical goals of the course, those methods are used. However, the faculty are committed to teaching their students the science of biology and psychology; in order to study life processes, one must study living organisms. Similarly, faculty engaged in research using live animals reflect seriously on all aspects of their research programs, examining the appropriateness of particular animal models including the species, number of animals used, type of measurements, etc.


Vassar is not a big research university. Why are animals used in research at a liberal arts college like Vassar?

As part of the worldwide scientific community, Vassar science faculty members are active researchers and regular contributors to the body of knowledge that increases understanding about psychology, biology, and related fields. Currently, scientists in the biology and psychology departments use animal models for that part of their research that cannot be simulated by computers or cell culture systems. At present, for example, researchers use rats for research on the cellular mechanisms of stroke and on the effects on brain activity of tamoxifen, a drug prescribed for the treatment and prevention of breast cancer. Researchers in psychology also have small colonies of zebra finches, starlings, and Japanese quail, which are used primarily for research related to various behavioral models of social communication.


Do students participate in research programs involving animals?

Absolutely. Engaging in the process of scientific research is the most important way for students to appreciate the theoretical and analytic frameworks underlying particular scientific questions. Members of the science faculty at Vassar actively involve students in all phases of their own research programs and supervise students engaged in independent research projects. When the models or questions being dressed are those that involve studying the physiology or behavior of living organisms, animal models are often used.


Okay, faculty research using animals is published in peer-reviewed journals and becomes part of the general body of scientific knowledge. Who benefits from student research that is done with animals?

First, many of our students, working closely with faculty, are able to see their own research projects through to the point where their projects also are presented at national or regional professional conferences and/or published in peer-reviewed scientific journals.

Second, for student researchers—whether or not their work goes on to be presented in a professional format—the experience gives them a deeper understanding of the methods, strengths, and limitations of biological and/or behavioral research. This important part of their education will make them better citizens in a world in which decisions about their own lives, as well as those of friends and family members, will be based on an understanding of complex biomedical and behavioral research data.


Are live animals used in psychology and biology classes at Vassar?

Yes, in some classes. The serious study of life processes requires the study of live organisms. The use of animals in teaching is often the only way to train future scientists, veterinarians, health practitioners, and informed citizens about how the body works, how nature is organized, and, most importantly, how to properly work with living creatures.


Do Vassar students have to work with animals if they are not comfortable doing so?

No. Vassar has a rich tradition of student choice in selecting courses. Students are not required to enroll in any course of study in which animal models are used, either in the classroom or in the laboratory setting. We recognize that the decision to elect courses, majors, and correlates or to participate in research studies based on or involving animal experimentation is often a personal choice. This choice may be influenced by intellectual interests as well as an individual’s morals, religion, family values, ethnic, and cultural background. Clearly, by electing a correlate such as Animal Physiology, a student would be acknowledging a willingness to work with animals in the laboratory.


Do faculty members and students address some of these complex issues related to the use of animals in teaching and research?

Yes. Often when research or teaching programs involve models using animal data—whether or not animals are actually used in the program—there is both formal and informal discussion among faculty and students about the social, political, and ethical use of animals in biological and psychological research.


Does anyone regulate the use of animals in teaching or research projects at Vassar?

Yes. Vassar has its own Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC), with faculty, veterinary, and community representation to monitor animal use on campus. One of IACUC’s major functions is to ensure that the methods used in all teaching and research projects involving the use of vertebrate animals is in full compliance with the guidelines set forth in the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Guide for the Care and Use of Animals, the Animal Welfare Act, and the Public Health Service (PHS) Policy.


For further information and copies of guidelines, please direct your questions to the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee at