Author Archives: Christine Adjangba

Week 8 – This Summer Has Been Great

Well… Great is an understatement. My time this summer has been enlightening and better than I could have imagined.

At the start of the program, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to pursue a career in research. I also didn’t know what type of research interested me, nor did I have any prior research experience. Throughout the last 8 weeks, I learned valuable skills that I can continue to use in the future. With my mentor’s guidance, I learned and improved the technical skills necessary to conduct the hormone research done in the lab. Some of these skills include drying, aspirating, and pipetting samples, all while handling radioactive and biological specimens. Aside from the technical skills needed at the bench, I improved my communication skills. Although I was aware of what constitutes an abstract, I learned how to effectively communicate through informal talks (like a chalk talk) and a poster thanks to my mentor, Dr. G, and Jason.

One of my favorite parts of BSURF was listening to the various experiences scientists had throughout their career. The faculty talks showed the diverse range of research being done at Duke in different fields. From extremophiles to neuroplasticity to the microbiome, hearing from all the PIs during the faculty talks showed the variety of topics an individual can focus their research on. The faculty talks also provided the opportunity to learn about the decisions the PIs made to reach the current phase in their career that they are in now. These experiences, along with the experiences of my mentor and PI, have increased my awareness of how I could proceed in scientific research following my undergrad.

I greatly enjoyed my research experience this summer, and I look forward to delving more into my scientific interests. Working in the Alberts Lab deepened my interest in evolutionary anthropology, and I plan on taking classes in the department to learn more about primate social behavior.

I am truly grateful for all the knowledge I gained from my mentor Dr. Laurence Gesquiere, my PI Dr. Alberts, Dr. G, and Jason, along with my fellow BSURFers. This has been a truly amazing opportunity and I’m so grateful to have had this experience.

Week 7 – Fecal Heaven

In my experience, it’s not often you meet someone who works with poop regularly. So when I learned that Dr. Lawrence David studied the microbiome using human stool samples, I was immediately intrigued. But it wasn’t Dr. David’s research that made me choose to write this blog about him. Instead, I appreciated how honest and open he was about his career path.

I felt like Dr. David’s background on his undergraduate career was very relatable in some aspects. During his undergraduate studies as a Biomedical Engineering major at Columbia University, Dr. David was immersed in an environment where majority of his classmates had medical school on their minds. As a prospective biology major with no intention on going to medical school, taking courses alongside pre-med students is something I’m familiar with. With medical school off the table, I plan on going to graduate school. And unlike those who went to medical school, Dr. David decided to attend graduate school, which I think proved to be a great decision for him.

While working towards his PhD in Computational and Systems Biology at MIT, Dr. David studied the microbiome by tracking the bacteria active in the gut. From how he presented his experiences, it seemed like he finessed his mentor to fund his trip to Asia alongside his partner. Since he was eating meals different from meals in the US, this change was reflected in the bacterial activity in his gut, which he was able to track after collecting fecal samples throughout his trip. (And fortunately, he saved an image of his fridge full of samples as proof!)

Despite being a relatively young scientist, Dr. David’s talk was full of insight and helpful advice. He found that making short-term decisions worked out well for him, and what ultimately matters is whether you’re happy in the present moment, not whether you’ll be happy 10 years from now.  A part of being happy is getting to know others while doing something fun. While it’s great to be passionate about your work and dedicate a lot of time to it, it’s just as important to have other hobbies and socialize with others in a non-professional environment.

One of the biggest takeaways from this talk was to do something unique. During your career, you may have some moments that could be weird. But based off of Dr. David’s experience, these weird moments can be monumental and influence how you continue progressing in your career. And even if things don’t turn out like you expect, at least you have unique memories along the way.

Week 6 – Will the Data Conflict?

To start off this post, I just want to say how surprised I was yesterday when I thought about how there are only 2 weeks left until BSURF ends. On Friday I performed my last RIA for the summer, and this upcoming week my mentor and I will start analyzing the data we collected so far. Although I’m excited to learn about the statistical analyses used in the research my mentor does (while hanging out more with her dogs), I haven’t been away from the bench since the first week of BSURF. And while I performed 27 RIAs this summer, whether or not my mentor and I find meaningful results from our data is not 100% guaranteed. Regardless of what our results show, I’ve had an amazing time in the lab and feel great about the work I’ve done so far.

Abstract: Do Alpha and Low-ranking Male Yellow Baboons Experience Different Sources of Stress?

In yellow baboons, Papio cynocephalus, an individual’s dominance rank reflects their access to resources, which can result in varying levels of stress. A previous study found that the concentration of fecal glucocorticoid (fGC) increases as rank decreases in males with the exception of the highest-ranking alpha male, who possessed a significantly high concentration of fGC. While high levels of fGC were identified in alpha and low-ranking males, the major sources of stress between the two remains unknown. Triiodothyronine (T3) radioimmunoassays were conducted on fecal samples collected during a longitudinal study on a wild population of yellow baboons. We hypothesize that alpha males possess low concentrations of fecal T3 (fT) due to participation in mating activities and agonistic interactions that cause high energetic stress, which suppresses T3 secretion. Alternatively, low-ranking males will have high concentrations of fT since they primarily experience psychosocial stress caused by limited food access and harassment by higher-ranking males. Differences in stress between alpha and low-ranking males provides insight on the range of social challenges experienced within a natural population. Further research on other wild primate populations can deepen our knowledge of the similarities between how social status relates to stress among primates.

Week 5 – Fecal Samples and Iodine

As I mentioned in my past post about my project, I am determining the thyroid concentration in fecal samples of a wild population of male baboons using T3 radioimmunoassay (RIA).

First, here’s a bit more information about how RIAs work: In a T3 RIA, an unknown amount of T3 thyroid hormone competes with a known amount of radioactively labeled T3 for binding sites on an antibody-coated tube. The antibody has equal affinity to the radioactive T3 tracer solution (in which the T3 is labeled with 125I) and the T3 present in the fecal samples. Once the T3 in the fecal sample competes with the T3 tracer solution for the binding sites, the antibody-coated tubes can be placed in a gamma counter that will determine radioactivity of the sample, which is measured in counts per minute (cpm). Seven standards (A-F and B ½) that contain different, known concentrations of T3 are analyzed each time a RIA is performed so that a standard curve can be generated. Therefore, the radioactivity of the fecal samples can be compared to the standards, and the concentration of T3 can be extrapolated from the curve.

After five weeks of working on my research project, I have performed 22 RIAs on about 1,500 fecal samples. Since the results of my project heavily rely on how many samples my mentor and I analyze, so far my days in the lab have followed a fairly predictable routine.

When I arrive in the morning I first collect the pre-selected 68 samples sitting in the freezer and prepare them for analysis the following day. To prepare them, I warm the samples to about 37°C in a water bath, vortex them for 10 seconds (more often than not there are solid components at the bottom of the test tube and we need those to be evenly distributed throughout the solution), transfer 2.5 mL of each sample into test tubes, and then dry them in the evap-o-rack. All the steps leading up to the evap-o-rack can take about 1.5 to 2 hours to complete. While the amount of time it takes for the samples to dry can vary, once the samples start drying then the morning phase of my day is over and onward I progress to the next stage of my day: performing the RIAs. (An important note: once the samples are completely drying sometime during the afternoon, I store them in the freezer to be analyzed the following day.)

In the second, longer part of my day, I retrieve the dry samples prepared the prior day and add 250 μl of Standard A (which contains no T3) to every test tube. I then vortex all the samples for 30 seconds, transfer them into Eppendorf tubes, and obtain the antibody-coated tubes. 100 μl of each standard, three controls, one pool, and the samples are added to two tubes as outlined below, ultimately resulting in 160 tubes that will be put in the gamma counter. But before I reach that step, I add 1 ml of the T3 tracer to all the tubes, vortex them for 10 seconds, incubate the samples for 1 hour at 37°C, aspirate the tubes, add 3 ml of deionized water to them all, then aspirate again. After the tubes are aspirated for the second time, I place them into the gamma counter and voilà: my day in the lab is over.

Before I leave, I like to label the test tubes and Eppendorf tubes to prepare for the next time I’m in the lab, which helps me save some time during the process. In the first couple of weeks, I often would end up leaving lab after 7:00. By week 4, I got use to the procedure and became more efficient, which helped me settle in a regular schedule of work, have a snack, work, have lunch during the hour wait, then finish up for the day and leave around 6:00. The only exception to this flow is on Mondays when I join my lab for the weekly lunch meetings. I may end up leaving the lab after 7:00 on Mondays, but it’s well worth it to spend the time with members of the Alberts lab and my mentor’s two dogs: Cyclone and Twister.

Week 4 – Mating Galore

Thank you my fellow BSURFers for sharing your projects this past week during the Chalk Talks. It was interesting to see the wide range of research going on this summer and learn about the different topics and techniques used in your research. One of the Chalk Talks that caught my attention was Melissa’s project on the genes underlying neural circuits in male fruit fly courtship behavior.

In her project, she will be looking at how environmental factors affect the expression of the genes Fruitless (Fru), Doublesex (DSX), and Choline Acetyltransferase (ChAT), which have been tied to sexual behavior in male fruit flies. More specifically, ChAT is a gene involved in the production of the acetylcholine and neural circuits involved in courtship behavior. Fru is involved in all courtship behaviors in males, while DSX is expressed at varying levels depending on how much courtship experience male flies have. Male flies with either the wildtype or mutated versions of these genes will either be put into group houses or isolated. While observing how the males respond in the different environments, Melissa can determine what changes were made during gene expression using ChIP, an immunoprecipitation method that tracks interactions between DNA and proteins.

A big reason why I am fascinated by Melissa’s project this summer is because it looks at a behavior in a non-human species. When learning about DNA and genetics in high school, I looked forward to learning more about how environmental changes affect gene expression, which would in turn influence a human’s behavior. Since coming to Duke, I surprisingly became more and more interested in understanding behavior in non-human species, along with the various ways we can study it. Therefore, Melissa’s project appeals to my interest in behavior and genes, and I’m excited to see how her project culminates at the end of the program!

Week 3 – How Things Came to Be

This past week I had the pleasure of talking to my PI, Dr. Susan Alberts.

As an undergraduate at Reed College, Dr. Alberts was originally a philosophy major. Her interest in biology began during the second semester of her sophomore year, when she had to take a required biology course taught by Dr. Bert Brehm. The knowledge she gained from this course (including the mutualistic relationship between the fig tree and fig wasp) fascinated her, causing her to change into a biology major. After graduating from Reed College, Dr. Alberts earned the Thomas J. Watson Foundation Fellowship for Research and Travel Abroad. During this year of research, she began studying baboons. Over 40 years later, Dr. Alberts continues to do so as a co-director to the Amboseli Baboon Research Project.

Dr. Alberts’s favorite aspect of her career is being able to observe the baboons in the Amboseli National Park in Kenya and figure out why they do what they do. The observable behaviors within the study population leads her to ask questions and understand what problems individuals are trying to solve. Additionally, the research in the Alberts Lab is interdisciplinary, allowing for projects that study the entire population of baboons or the molecular differences between individuals.

Since she studies the wild population of baboons living in the Amboseli, Dr. Alberts travels a few times each year to perform on-site research alongside the field team. With no electricity or water on the field, Dr. Alberts can immerse herself in her work. Each day, she would go with the team to three different baboon groups, take a census on who’s present, record the females’ reproductive state, and observe the behaviors and interactions within the group.

Although Dr. Alberts can’t be on-site at Amboseli year-round because of her responsibilities as a PI at Duke and a mother at home, she values each trip to Amboseli. All of her trips have been memorable to her, and she continues to love watching the baboons. Soon she will travel back to Amboseli for the summer and see what new changes there are and find more fuel for her research.

Week 2 – What do I do?

Studying the wild population of yellow baboons (Papio cynocephalus) in the Amboseli National Park of southern Kenya, the Alberts Lab focuses on how animals respond behaviorally to their social environment. As a matrilocal species, female baboons stay within the group they are born into while males will disperse to another group. Male baboons compete with each other for access to resources, such as food and reproductive opportunities, therefore leading to a dominance social hierarchy.

With on-site, documented interactions between baboons and the ability to analyze hormone concentrations from collected fecal samples, my mentor explored the relationship between dominance rank and stress in male baboons. Gesquiere et al. (2011) found that the concentration of the stress hormone glucocorticoid in fecal samples was high in alpha and low-ranking males. However, beta males had significantly lower levels of glucocorticoid compared to alpha males, with the concentration of glucocorticoid increasing the lower in rank an individual is.

This summer, I am continuing Dr. Laurence Gesquiere’s research. In order to determine potential differences in stress experienced by alpha and low-ranking male baboons, I will determine the thyroid hormone concentration in fecal samples. Thyroid hormone is being analyzed because the thyroid gland secretes more or less of the hormone based on changes in metabolism, therefore allowing the hormone to be used as a measurement of energetic stress. Energetic stress caused by agonistic interactions and mating activities is believed to be the major source of stress for alpha males. In contrast, it is hypothesized that low-ranking males experience energetic stress from limited access to food and psychosocial stress from harassment from higher-ranking males.

Therefore, by looking at the thyroid concentration present in fecal samples from male baboons, I will help elucidate different sources of stress between low-ranking male baboons and the alpha males.

And as promised last week, here’s a picture of me working in the lab:

Me aspirating samples before they go into the gamma counter. Picture courtesy of my mentor!

Week 1 – What will come?

For years I envisioned myself sitting at a bench, working towards unearthing new discoveries that’ll change humanity’s understanding of the natural world. With BSURF, I now have the chance to know what the reality of working in a research lab is like. In the upcoming weeks I look forward to learning what research entails: from spending a day in the lab preparing samples to reading literature related to your research to finding out that your results may not end up like you hoped. In the past week, I already learned that a research scientist (who’s dedicated to their work) is subject to their research and would work late hours just to ensure that they completed all tasks needed to be done for the day (along with any prep work for the next one).

I also hope to develop relationships with my mentor, other members in the Alberts Lab, faculty at Duke, and my peers that are a part of BSURF and other research programs. My mentor, Dr. Laurence Gesquiere, welcomed me into the lab this past week and taught me the procedures I’ll be doing for the upcoming weeks for my project. (I’ll explain more about my project in the next blog!) Dr. Susan Alberts (my PI) has been absent this past week, but I look forward to talking with her again about her career and interests. Although the other members of the lab and a few other undergraduates are focusing on their own projects, there are opportunities to talk and interact with them in the lab. Similarly, engaging with Duke faculty and other students here over the summer could enhance my experience here at Duke this summer.

My ultimate expectation (at least for right now) is to figure out if I foresee research in my future. I’ve idealized the idea, but having the first-hand experience working in a lab will help me determine if I would want it to be my future career. While my interests and plans can change throughout the upcoming years (and the rest of my life), BSURF is an opportunity that will help shape the rest of my time here at Duke and beyond.

If anything, I expect the next seven weeks to be fun, hard-working, and enlightening. And if the past week gives any indication of the rest of my time here, then I think my expectations aren’t too far off from reality!

(I also forgot to take pictures in lab, but next week I’ll be sure to include some!)