Rise and Shine: A Study of Sleep

Jan 29, 2014

Brianna Rakouska ’17 studies for a French exam late into the evening at W&L.
Credit Washington & Lee University

Plenty of people spend at least part of their time at college sleeping through class, but at Washington and Lee University, students have the chance to enroll in a course where they’ll learn why.

Assistant Professor Natalia Toporikova was invited to design an undergraduate course that would  teach students the basics of science:  how to interpret studies, how to develop a hypothesis and test it.  What better way, she thought, than to study the subject of sleep?   It was not her decision to schedule that class at 8 a.m.

“I came to the class the first day.  I said, ‘Okay, I know that you cannot function at this time, and by the end of the semester you will know why.”

The students discovered that people naturally fall into different groups. 

“We took chronotype questionnaires to determine what our chronotypes were, and I found I was a morning lark," said biochemistry major Austin Walker.

Not so for Elliott Emadian, a freshman who plans to major in neuroscience and math. “I’m almost so much of a night owl that it’s an early morning person.”

Nineteen students were divided into four groups – told to come up with ways that night owls might cope with early morning classes.  The one thing they agreed on was the need for light.

“You will feel better , even if you’re not a morning person.  Bright light -- it will wake you up!”

Natalia Toporikova, Assistant Professor of Biology

Professor Toporikova admitted she was surprised by the simplicity of that solution and others.
“Y’know, I’m guilty.  When you’re a teacher, and you have Power Point, it’s so nice to dim the room to  see the screen, but there’s a big price for that – especially for students with early chronotypes.  Open the windows.  Don’t wear sunglasses in the morning.  Eat your breakfast.  Grandma was right about that.”  

Then, she assigned students to make recommendations for long-distance travelers to avoid jet lag. 

Freshman Diana Banks says groups did the research and came up with many suggestions:

“Drugs like melatonin, or doing natural remedies with light. Some people said caffeine.  Other people said try adjusting your schedule gradually up until the day of departure.”

They also advised scheduling your flight to assure good sleep en route or on arrival – to which their professor said, ‘Amen.’

“Eleven AM of your local time is the time when it’s impossible to sleep.  If you fall asleep at 11 a.m., you’re seriously sleep deprived.  Or 7 PM.  These are the time points when sleep is really, really hard for most of the people. “

Students investigated genetic links to at least one sleep disorder, and they were taught that it really is important to get enough sleep each night.  Alas, their teacher says, they had a whole different attitude:

“I can beat the sleep.  I don’t need the sleep.  I only need an hour of sleep.”

So she tried offering extra credit for anyone who – using an app on their phone – could prove they had actually slept eight hours a night.  Not one qualified, but they shared their findings on many sleep related subjects with other students, faculty members and administrators.

 Audio FileListen to Sandy Hausman's report on Clocks and Rhythms – a study of human biology and time.Edit | Remove