Author Archives: Alie Fink

Of Mice and Death

Here is a comprehensive list of the things that I learned this summer:

  1. When all of your mice die, you don’t go home.
  2. Mice do not know what weekends are.
  3. No matter how much Dr. Grunwald loves snakes, I will never stop being afraid of them.
  4. Jason will move mountains to bring me jelly, while listening to 90s grunge of course.
  5. I truly love doing research, and I cannot wait to be back in lab next semester.
  6. I tried to like math, I really did. But alas, I still don’t like math.
  7. Even when you proof read your poster for a week, you still make a typo in your title.
  8. When your project completely fails, a great mentor will send you an article about the importance of stupidity in science and help you figure out how to keep moving.
  9. Theoretical results are still as acceptable as real results.
  10. I can’t wait to spend the rest of my career doing science.

Thank you to the Dzirasa lab for giving me a fantastic summer research experience. Thank you to Dr. Grunwald and Jason for teaching all of us so much about what it means to be a scientist.

Science with a Story

Throughout the program we’ve had the opportunity to hear from a variety of researchers at Duke. They have studied everything from CRISPR to bird song varieties, but have all shared one thing: their passion. Everyone who spoke had a clear passion for their work and a true love of science. It was inspiring to hear how so many people made successful careers for themselves that include their personal interests of discovery and innovation.

One talk that really struck me was from Dr. Anne West. Dr. West’s research was interesting to me from the start because it is in my intended field, but she also delivered such a powerful presentation on the importance of basic science research. Her presentation talked about the serendipity of finding CRISPR in archaea in the 1980s and how that discovery has led to a massive revolution in research today. Those findings will be able to alter medical treatment for a myriad of diseases, including Duchene’s Muscular Dystrophy. Dr. West made a convincing, easy to follow, and powerful case for funding basic science research. She communicated with the audience in a way that many people would relate to, by bringing up how a disease affected a child. She gave her audience hope at the end, a clear understanding of how basic science research that was completely unrelated to a disease could become applicable to its treatment, and she did it all without using scientific jargon. I was impressed with her project idea and her future plans to collect these stories and turn them into a book. Her ability to use research that she was working on, science that she knew, personal experiences that she had, and an opinion that she believed in all at once was impressive. I was already planning on getting a Science and Society certificate from Duke, but now I might have an avenue by which to pursue my interests in conveying the importance of science to the general public. I hope that Dr. West’s project turns into a book that educates the public and our politicians about the importance of basic science and how drastically basic science can impact our society.

A Work in Progress

The Dzirasa lab uses chronic social defeat stress to create an ecologically relevant model for depression in mouse models. The model results in the expression of two distinct phenotypes, resilient and susceptible, similar to the phenotypes seen in human patients who have different responses to stressful events.The aim of my project was to correlate the behavioral changes associated with chronic anti-depressant treatment of socially defeated mice with biochemical changes of the level of phosphorylation of the protein MeCP2 in the lateral habenula. Previous work by the West lab studying the methyl DNA-binding protein MeCP2 has found that MeCP2 is phosphorylated by monoamine neurotransmitters. Increased levels of MeCP2 phosphorylation in the lateral habenula were found with chronic treatment of imipramine, indicating that MeCP2 may have a role in the brain’s biochemical response to chronic anti-depressant treatment. In order to correlate MeCP2 phosphorylation during anti-depressant treatment with behavioral recovery of a prosocial phenotype in socially defeated mice, mice will undergo two rounds of behavioral tests before and after imipramine treatment and then will be tested for levels of MeCP2 phosphorylation. If phosphorylation is correlated with behavioral recovery, susceptible mice that display resilient behavior after imipramine treatment will also have increased levels of MeCP2 phosphorylation in the lateral habenula.

Science is Important!

First off, I want to thank everyone for doing such a great job presenting their chalk talk last week. I know that public speaking is a struggle for me and I’m sure I’m not alone. Everyone did a wonderful job and is on their way to becoming a great scientist!

A highlight of the chalk talk series for me was getting to see my roommate Georgia convey her science. Georgia has become a good friend of mine throughout the program, but I haven’t been able to talk to her about her project as much as I would’ve liked. Her talk was a great example of basic science and how scientists are working across the world to learn more about various organisms. Georgia’s lab studies baboons from Kenya and then analyses their fecal matter all the way in Durham, North Carolina. They then work to correlate the organism’s biochemistry with their behavior and ecological conditions in Kenya. I find it fascinating that something as natural as heavy rain can increase the level of glucocorticoids in a baboon’s system. I think that often there is a large gap in the minds of scientists between organismal activity at the molecular level and then at the level of the entire organism, but Georgia’s research does a nice job of bridging that gap to show how significantly an organism’s biochemistry can change as a result of something in their environment. This type of research is unfortunately often overlooked compared to research that has direct biomedical applications, and with the current political climate could face challenges with funding. I think Georgia did a great job of explaining why her research is good science, interesting, and deserving of public support.

Waking Up with a Purpose

The impending doom of an alarm clock waking me up from my nightly hibernation is less terrible when I know I have lab to look forward to (needless to say I’m not a morning person). Usually three snoozes later my day will start around 8:15. I’ll gather my things and make the arduous trek up the Edens stairs to my happy place: Joe Van Gough. The heroes of JVG will provide me with my elixir of life and I’ll finally start to come out of my hibernation.

Walking into lab (full of coffee, of course) is always incredibly exciting. I’ll never fully know what the day entails, but I know I’ll always get to learn something. For the past ten days we’ve been doing the social defeat experiment at 11 AM. I’ll spend my morning getting to hold cute little mice. I’ve been known to name them, cuddle them, and maybe drop a few ‘I love you’s if I’m feeling extra perky. I get to do science while spending time with animals and some great lab members. After the experiment is over, we usually break for lunch. I’ll hike my way to West Union and battle my way through 12 year olds to get food.

Back in lab, I’ll see what other lab members are doing and see if they need help. My official work for the day is over, but my lab usually needs help doing histology. We implant electrodes into the brains of the mice before our social defeat experiments to get data about activity in certain brain regions involved with depressive-like symptoms. To validate our data we must look at the brains after the experiment to make sure the electrodes we implanted were in the right brain region. That way we can support that our results show data from the region that we intended to be recording. I love this portion of the day because I get to see the project I’m currently working on come full circle. There’s always more histology to work on so I get to learn something new every day.

After my histology is done I make the walk back to Edens and spend my night finishing a paper for lab. I’m extremely grateful that I get to work every week with such talented lab members and have the privilege of learning from them. Not many undergrads get to learn so much so early and truly experience what life in a lab is like.

Mice, Injections, Proteins, Oh My!

One of the core approaches my lab uses to model depressive-like symptoms in mouse models is the social defeat paradigm. This paradigm allows my lab to simulate behavioral conditions that lead to the onset of depressive-like symptoms which we can then use to study and/or treat. My lab uses this method because it allows us to study the onset of depressive-like symptoms in as close to a real world setting as possible, while not relying on the monoamine hypothesis that states that depression is largely caused by a lack of serotonin or norepinephrine in the brain. As the focus of my summer research work, I have been assisting various lab members on different projects that use the paradigm to study the effectiveness of different treatment methods for depression.

Currently, I am helping a fellow undergraduate student study the relationship between behavior and microbiology in the lateral habenula on the brain. Scientists have found that over excitability in the lateral habenula is correlated with depressive-like symptoms while a smaller region in the lateral habenula has been shown to inhibit these symptoms. Previous data has suggested that a protein, MeCP2, has an antidepressant like effect when phosphorylated in the small region of the lateral habenula. The project that I am assisting with seeks to understand whether MeCP2 is phosphorylated in the brains of mice that have been treated with an anti-depressant called imipramine.

The experimental set up involves 10 days of social defeat followed by 28 days of imipramine injections, or 27 days of saline injections and 1 day of imipramine injections. We will then test 6 mice out of each experimental group and 6 mice of the control group that receives 28 saline injections to isolate and measure MeCP2 levels in the lateral habenula. Our hypothesis is that the mice that have had 28 days of imipramine injections will have the strongest anti-depressant effects and will have the highest levels of MeCP2.

Road Less Travelled

I had the pleasure of interviewing my post-doc, Dr. Stephen Mague, for this blog post. Dr. Mague attended Bates College for undergrad and got his PhD from the University of Pennsylvania.

I asked Dr. Mague why he chose to go into science. He said that he started off college taking science classes because he thought that he wanted to go to medical school. Though he originally saw his biology classes as a means to an end, during his junior year of college he discovered his love of neuroscience. It was a new, rare major that bridged his interests in psychology and biology so he began taking neuroscience classes. One such class was an animal models of behavioral disorders class where he got to do a class project and design an experiment studying Parkinson’s Disease in mouse models. He saw that it was possible to manipulate an animal’s behavior by changing brain levels of dopamine. Because of the class, Dr. Mague did a thesis project that extended his original work.

By the end of college, Dr. Mague was still in denial about being a scientist. He took three gap years working as a research technician where he learned more models of animal behavior, developed mouse surgical skills, and a love for studying animal behavior as it relates to neurological conditions. Dr. Mague was mostly motivated by intrigue in the general subject matter in which he was working and decided to go to grad school to pursue his interests.

Dr. Mague gave me some valuable insights that I would like to share with you all. First off, he explained that while grad school trains you to become a PI, most PhDs never become PIs. He said that it takes a specific skill set to be able to network, advocate for your lab, travel far and often, and be okay with being somewhat removed from the science that you work on. Next, he said that PhDs do not have to become professors either. He isn’t planning on ever teaching full time and has still made a career for himself in science. He said that there are many paths to go down in science besides the typical PI or professor route. Lastly, he said that it’s important to take care of yourself while you’re in school and not wait to live your life once you’re finished with school. I found this piece of advice to be particularly meaningful because I feel that at Duke it can be really easy to put yourself last behind all of your priorities. I think we can all learn a lot from what he had to say.

I really appreciate Dr. Mague speaking to me, and I found our conversation to be particularly informative and helpful. Though I couldn’t add all of our conversation to my post due to its length, all of what he said has helped me to focus on the importance of loving the science you do and realizing that the path you take may not be the path that everyone takes. It’s okay to make your own way in life and to be comfortable with yourself for doing so.

Mice Mice Everywhere

When presented with the opportunity to experience full-time research for the first time, expectations run wild. My excitement leads to visions of me in a lab coat conducting successful experiments every day and makes it difficult for me to ground my expectations in reality. Clearly no Nobel Prizes will be won this summer; I will not suddenly become the perfect scientist, and it’s unlikely that I’ll be running many experiments by myself. This summer is about learning, about growing, and about experiences that will mold my undergraduate career.

One of my more realistic expectations is to learn. After my first week in lab I truly believe that if I entered sleepwalking I would still manage to learn something. Learning in lab is different from learning in lecture in ways that you must experience. I didn’t learn where the mouse amygdala is by looking at a lecture slide; I saw the mouse amygdala! There’s nothing more exciting for me than getting to experience science by doing science and witnessing other talented people do science. My primary expectation this summer is that I will learn about neuroanatomy, the neuroscience of psychiatric disorders, and learn ways to properly use animal models to study models of human psychiatric disorders.

My scariest expectation is my expectation that I will grow (not literally) and change due to my participation in this summer program. For the first time, I get to try on my scientist hat and participate in real scientific questions and discoveries. I get to think of myself as a growing, learning researcher and discover all that that entails. I expect to grow in my knowledge of what it means to be a scientist. Do I like working in a lab? Do I like working with animal models? Do I fit in with my lab’s culture? Do I even genuinely like neuroscience or do I find more interest in a project conducted by one of my peers in this program? I hope to have answers to these questions by the end of the summer, and because of answering these questions I hope to grow.