I thought 8 weeks of research was a long time but it actually ended a lot quicker than I thought it would. I had such an amazing and person-changing summer. I learned so much about research and even got to learn how to correctly harvest rat brains and vital organs (which I did like a pro).
This summer got me so excited for research that I decided that instead of just getting an MD, I wanted to get an MD/Ph.D. so that I could be a physician and use my clinical work to inform my research work.
The people in my lab had such a great sense of humor and everyone was so eager to help if you had a question or needed something. I want to continue to work in the Levin lab and learn more about the sciences and research. And of course, I will be continuing to read the literature so I know what is going on in the scientific world.
I would not be the same person I am now had I not been apart of BSURF and I’m thankful for that.
Me, Bruny Kenou, stunting with my research poster at my poster session.
Bruny Kenou at the Levin Lab
Credits: Duke DIBS
Dr. Amir Rezvani is a professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences and Associate Director of Addiction Division at Duke University in addition to being one of the PI in the lab that I am working in this summer. One of the first things I noticed about him when I met him was his amazing sense of humor, which makes working in his lab joyful. He is definitely not the stereotypical scientist that we all imagine in our heads; one that never smiles or jokes, and is about science 24/7. In fact, he is quite the opposite. This week I decided to give him a short interview so I can learn more about him and his journey in the scientific world.
Dr. Rezvani was born in Persia (Iran) where he did his undergraduate at the prestigious University of Tehran which is the best and oldest university in the Middle East. He received his undergraduate degree in biology then got his masters in teaching biology. Although he was accepted in medical school and even put down a deposit for his tuition so that his spot could be saved, at the end he decided to go into biology instead of going to medical school. When I asked him why he chose to give up medicine to be a scientist, he replied that his high school science teacher was the main force in convincing him to pursue biology and the life sciences. That teacher had so much passion for the life sciences that became contagious that Dr. Rezvani caught it. After high school, he decided that he wanted a more science-based career so he gave up medicine to pursue something he loved more.
For graduate school, he came to the United States and landed in Missouri where he received another Master degree in Physiology. As if he didn’t have enough degrees, Amir Rezvani became Dr. Amir Rezvani, receiving a Ph.D. in Neurophysiology from the University of Illinois at Urbana- Champaign. He said he was drawn to neurophysiology because there was so much unknown in the field and there were great opportunities for discoveries. He was also interested in human behavior and neurophysiology encompassed that. At that time, his research looked at the effects of beta endorphins, a newly discovered endogenous peptide, on temperature regulation in rabbits. He then went to University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for his postdoc (which explains his loyalty to UNC). After finishing his postdoc, he was recruited as a faculty in the department of Psychiatry at UNC where he became interested in addiction to alcohol by using alcohol drinking rats and monkey. In 1999, he finally came to Duke University and began working with Dr. Edward Levin. However, his unfaltering loyalty to UNC did not change (even though he is working at Duke which is kind of like enemy territory for him).
His advice for budding scientist is to be curious as much as you can about everything and read as much as you can. Read literature and then talk to other scientists, expose yourself to other scientists by going to talks and seminars and meetings and conferences. Doing all of this will help you find what you really love and what excites you. At the end of the day, you have to love it. Because you don’t want to wake up in the morning and hate what you’re doing. Life is too short for that. And last but not least, you need to be passionate about helping other people especially for medicine but also for science. Because every addition to the human knowledge, no matter how small, can eventually help someone somewhere in the world.
As you can see, Dr. Rezvani has lived a very dynamic and science-filled life, always ready to learn more. One can learn a lot from his life and experiences. I think the thing that I learned from listening to him is to always be prepared to learn (because he wouldn’t have collected so many degrees if he didn’t like learning) and to not be afraid to go against the tide and do things that you really enjoy. This lesson not only applies to budding physician/scientists like me but also everyone in the world.
Approximately half of the world’s children are exposed to second-hand smoke. Preliminary studies have been conducted that shows the link between Attention Deficient Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD) and tobacco smoke. Tobacco smoke is a substance that contains thousands of harmful chemicals and there is evidence to believe that maternal smoking negatively affects neurobehavioral development in offspring. Some of these neurobehavioral effects include the hyperactivity and declined cognition that is often associated with ADHD. The most active compound in tobacco smoke is Nicotine which, when used on rat models, cause significant cognitive impairment properties. In addition to Nicotine, benzo-a-pyrene (BaP) is also present in tobacco smoke and it also has been studied to have negative neurobehavioral effects in rat models. In this study, female rats were either given nicotine, Bap, both, or neither and the offspring of those rats then underwent neurobehavioral tests. The results of this study showed that the male rats who were exposed to BaP had a significant locomotor activity while the female rats did not during adolescence. Male offspring who were exposed to both nicotine and BaP (in particular) had significant and long lasting neurobehavioral defects.
This week, we had a chalk talk where everybody in the research fellowship gave a general overview of their projects and what they were doing in their projects. The projects in the group spanned from poop to the mechanisms of the brain to immunology and other parts of the sciences. Everyone did an amazing job during their chalk talks and many of the projects got me very excited for the future of the sciences.
One of the projects that I found the most exciting was the one that Anikka is working on that deals with the gut microbiome and its link to depression. I have always been interested in mental illness and the brain but who would have guessed that mental illness and the stomach are so closely connected? I was once watching an ASAP Science video that briefly talked about the link between our guts and who we are. I did some researching online and found that about 80-90% of our serotonin is actually in our gut. This not only makes serotonin a neurotransmitter, but it also means that it is a type of hormone. That is simply amazing. Serotonin affects our mood so that explains why I feel so grumpy when I’m hungry and why I feel so happy when I eat something good or when I’m full.
Anikka’s project was also looking on how fecal transplants could also change the anxiety in rat models. That means, if you took the poop from a rat without anxiety and put it into a rat with anxiety (in an attempt to change the gut bacteria), would the rat with anxiety no longer have anxiety? Believe it or not, these fecal transplants are actually being done on humans in present day. I heard of a project at MIT that was having students donate their fecal matter in order to use it as microbiome therapy for other people.
But if anxiety can be affected by the bacteria in our guts, what else can be affected? Can you change intelligence by changing your gut bacteria? How about the fears that you have? If you take the gut bacteria of someone who loves snakes (like Dr. Grunwald) and put it into someone who is deadly afraid of snakes (like a lot of his students), will that person’s fear of snakes and their sympathetic nervous system response to snakes be different? These are some of the thought that ran through my head as Anikka was giving her presentation. I hope that I can soon find out what some of the results say.
My day in the Levin lab usually varies. Some days I come into the lab and I have a few rats to harvest. Harvesting includes extracting the brain and spleen and liver from each rat (after they have died of course). Sometimes I am also in charge of putting the rats through the series of varies tests that we give them as mentioned in the protocol. These tests include tings like attention tasks, figure 8 mazes, and item recognition test.
The other half of my time in the lab is spent doing less glamorous things like feeding the rats, changing cages, washing cages, marking their tails and weighting them, and also getting bit every once in a while. But everything that one does in the lab cannot be completely glamorous. I am very glad that I get to do interesting things when the opportunity comes and the days usually go by pretty fast. My lab also uses Zebrafish but I never work with them. I usually see them only in passing.
Sometimes, we get fire drills because the cage wash causes the fire alarm to go off every once in a while and everyone has to stop what they’re doing to go outside and wait for the fire department to come. They usually look kind of annoyed. OOPS.
Well, that is usually some of the things that my days in the lab entail. I’ll be learning how to do surgery on the rats soon which might be fun.
Thanks for reading!
Weed. Marijuana. Mary Jane. J.
There are many names for the drug that most of us know so well. Many people all over the country have been pushing for the legalization of marijuana with places like Colorado having succeeded. Though not completely legal everywhere, there has been so much scientific evidence as to the medical benefits of marijuana it is used to treat certain illnesses. With all its positive medical benefits, it is not without health risks. There have been studies that show that women who use cannabis during pregnancy are at high risk for having babies with abnormal neurobehavioral functioning in addition to other abnormal biological traits (Huizink, Anja C., and Eduard JH Mulder, 2006). But we all know that there are a lot of things that mothers shouldn’t do because it would affect their children. But what about fathers? They play half the part in making the baby too (in terms of DNA that is). What the father does could also affect the baby as well right?
As most of you may know, this summer I am working in the Neurotoxicity/Neuropharmacology lab of Dr. Edward Levin. The specific project that I am involved in looks at THC and how it affects epigenetics in the offspring when it is administered to the father. Of course, it would be a little unethical to use humans for this study so instead, we are using rats. We are administering THC to male rats, mating them with female rats that have never been high in their life, then putting the offspring through a few tests while also looking at the brain functioning and structure of the offspring. Theses tests include attention tasks, maze tasks, and other assessments that look at cognitive functioning. After those tasks, we will be comparing the brains of those rats and normal rats to see if there is a difference.
I find this study so interesting because as an aspiring neuroscientist\physician it is very imperative to look at how lifestyle choices could affect the neurocircuitry, cognitive functioning, and epigenetics of future offspring. Abnormalities in neurocircuitry could ultimately lead to different types of mental illness. Of course prevention is better than a cure so since I also want to have a focus on mental illness, this working on this study is a great way for me to play a hand in the field that I want to go into in addition to making discoveries that could impact how I help my patients in the future.
Huizink, A. C., & Mulder, E. J. (2006). Maternal smoking, drinking or cannabis use during pregnancy and neurobehavioral and cognitive functioning in human offspring. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 30(1), 24-41.
This week I interviewed the Principal Investigator of my lab, Dr. Ed Levin, and I was able to take a dive into parts of his life and look at his journey of becoming the amazing researcher he is now.
As you may have guessed, Dr.Edward Levin wasn’t born with a Doctorate. In fact, he was born in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania where his father worked as a physician in another town in Pennsylvania that had a lot of pollution. The town had lots of smog and there was even an event that happened in 1948 before Dr. Levin was born that ended up killing a lot of people. The pollution and history of that town are what got Dr.Levin extremely interested in toxicology. He enrolled at Penn State University for a year and a half and then transferred to
He enrolled at Penn State University for a year and a half and then transferred to the University of Rochester due to their excellent “physiological psychology’ program which nowadays would be called Behavioral Neuroscience. He studied that then took a gap year to work as a lab technician in Philly. Then he applied to graduate schools and then went to UW-madison in 1977. He started off with a master in psychology where he studied the adverse effects of pharmaceutical drugs. He later switched to a Ph.D. program in toxicology. For his Ph.D., he did work with Rhesus monkeys and looked at the cognitive effects of lead on early life. He moved to UCLA and studied the motor function and the adverse side effects of psychiatric drugs. He met his wife and after having his first child, he moved to Sweden for a while where he studied dementia and antipsychotic use. Coming back from Sweden, he came back to UCLA and got into studying nicotine. He started working with Jed Rose who was the co-founder of the nicotine skin patch. Jed Rose soon invited him to come to North Carolina with his family in 1989 where he came to Duke as an Assistant Professor. In 1992, he finally got his own lab and went back to working with animals. He continued doing work in neurotoxicology.
When I asked him why he kept doing research, he said that the joy of discovery is what drives him every day. Research is so interesting because when you have discovery, you realize that you are the first one to know a piece of information and that you are adding to the knowledge pool of mankind.
Finally, at the end of the interview, I asked him about the advice he would give to students like me who one day wanted to go into research and solve some unanswered questions. He told me that reading broadly and going out and meeting the different people that are doing things that interest you was one of the best things that a person like me could do. He also said that you should try to be an expert in one thing but be able to speak the languages of other disciplines so that you can converse with people in other areas besides your own. In addition, he says to be perseverant and never be afraid to make mistakes because they call it research for a reason. You search and then you re-search. Finally, always remember that research takes time. You don’t instantly make a discovery. It takes a lot of time and work. You could read one line of information in a textbook that probably took a person 40 years to discover. When it comes to research, patience is something that one needs to have.
BSURF began this week and throughout the week I’ve been thinking about what my ultimate goal was. I was thinking about what exactly I want to get out of my experience.
One of my dreams is to come up with my own research and maybe get published one day. I am hoping that this experience will give me more of an idea of how to go about doing that. How to think of an idea, design a way to collect evidence for my hypothesis and then figure out the tools I need to conduct my experiment.
So far I have learned so many things in my week already. I’ve learned how to score experiments, put rats through experiments, I have learned how to even perform some surgeries. But I think one of the most important things I have learned so far is that research is a very slow process that requires a lot of patience. Research and finding new information is sexy but in order to get to that sexy part, you have to do some of the not-so-sexy things.
You have to spend time feeding the rats, weighing and marking their tails, and cleaning out their poopy cages. You have to spend time figuring out which rats to move into separate cages if they don’t seem to be striving with other rats in their cages. You have to be okay with getting bitten sometimes when you’re taking the rats out of cages to conduct the experiments. You might even be peed and pooped on a couple of times. However, all these things are necessary in order to make new discoveries. I am very excited to see what other things I learn.