Author Archives: Lillian Needam

Goodbye BSURF

I am beyond thankful to have had the opportunity to be apart of the BSURF program. I have had the opportunity to work with some amazing researchers. I got to hear talks from amazing faculty members. I have also gotten to form bonds and make memories with the other students in my program. I am sad to see these 8 weeks come to an end.

When I first started in my lab, I was very nervous about how everything would work out but I was open to the learning experience. Over the course of the summer, I realized that I truly do enjoy working in a lab. I enjoyed planning and executing experiments. Over the summer, I had to help create a protocol and it is cool to see results come from the protocol I worked on.

Over the summer, I had to present my topic/data multiple times. Learning how to properly present data to an audience is crucial if I want to work in research in the future. Though I was nervous each time, having a solid background in my topic and tips from our program directors made me feel more confident in my presenting abilities.

As I said before, I am thankful for the opportunity I was given this summer. I would like to thank Dr. Hammer for having me in her lab this summer. I would also like to thank my mentors, Nourhan and Hsin-I for working with me and making my experience in the lab enjoyable. Finally, I would like to thank the directors for the program, Dr. Grunwald and Jason Long, for their guidance and support over the summer.

My mentors and I at the final poster session

To Say they are Remarkable is an Understatement

Sometimes, as students, we forget to take advantage of all the resources provided by this phenomenal institution. One of these resources is the faculty. Twice a week, different faculty members speak to our program about their lives as a researcher. Some of the faculty were well established (including a Nobel Prize winner) and others were new to teaching. Though they were all researchers, their specialties ranged from evolution to HIV to bird song. Each speaker had taken a different path to get to where they are today but none of it could be considered easy. They each worked hard for what they accomplished, occasionally stumbling along the way. Overall, I was thankful that they would take time out of their busy schedules to come and speak to us.

One speaker that I thoroughly enjoyed was Dr. Lawrence David. His research involves looking at what humans eat and how it effects gut microbes. I thoroughly enjoy talking about food, so hearing about his studies were exciting. He also talked about how his research allowed him to travel. Traveling and research are rarely talked about, but it was cool to see how he was able to combine the two. What stood out to me about his talk was the fact that he spent half of the presentation talking about questions he frequently gets asked from students. This really stuck with me because some of the questions were the same ones I have. It was nice to hear his prospective and to hear some of the advice he has gained along the way.

Though each talk was unique in their own way, they all had some similar takeaways:

  1. Nothing in life is going to be easy. Doing research can be hard and frustrating at times. You must work hard in order to accomplish the goals that you have for yourself.
  2. Not everyone will end up where they expect. Just because you plan to do research in a certain topic, does not mean you will end up there. Be open to the changes that may come throughout your education and your career
  3. Find what you love. If you enjoy the topic, it makes the work more interesting.

Again, I would like to thank all the faculty that spoke to us over the summer. Thank you for sharing your wisdom with us.

Potential Abstract?

How does the ability to do phagocytosis of a new cell population compare to other dendritic cells?

The intestines are home to immune system cells whose role is to monitor the microbiota within the gut; one group of these cells being dendritic cells. Recently, a population of dendritic cells that are CD14+, a marker that was associated with macrophages, were found in the colon. The role of these CD14+ DCs in the colon and their ability to do phagocytosis is unknown. We hypothesize that that these novel CD14+ DCs will be better at phagocytosis compared to other DCs. We extracted cells from the colon and incubated them with a pseudopathogen with a colored marker under multiple different conditions. Afterwards the cells were stained with antibodies and analyzed using a flow cytometer. Under multiple conditions, we found a higher median fluorescence for the novel DCs when compared to the other DCs in the colon. At the same time, the novel DCs did not have a median fluorescence intensity as high as the macrophages. Our data suggests that the novels DCs have an increased ability to perform phagocytosis compared to other DCs but not at the level of the macrophages.

Lillian’s Lab Life

So far, my summer has been exciting. I’ve learned so many new things and have gotten he opportunity to talk/listen to so many amazing people. I cannot wait to see how everything turns out over these last few weeks.

Daily life in a lab is different everyday. Some days are consumed by experiments, while others are filled with data analysis.

The time at which my day starts depends on what’s going on that day. If there is an experiment that has to be done by a particular time, then I may come in early to make sure that I finish the tasks in time. Other days, I come in later than normal because of BSURF scheduled events.  I usually start my day by checking in with my mentor to see what I need to have accomplished by the end of the day (or by the end of the week). Afterwards, I’ll usually start working in the lab (unless I have to analyze data for the day). Before lunchtime, I am usually extracting cells that need that will be analyzed at a later point. Extracting cells is a much more tedious process than I initially expected but I have gotten better at it as the summer has progressed.

Lunchtime is always a great time. Sometimes I’ll get lunch with my mentor and some of the other people in the lab. There is another undergraduate in the lab (who is also named Lillian) and we like to get lunch together if we are both free at the same time. There are also times when I have to get a quick lunch, especially if I am in the middle of an experiment, so I will go by myself.

After lunch, if I extracted cells in the morning, then my afternoon is consumed by the staining of those cells. If they have to be analyzed immediately, then those cells will also be taken to the flow cytometer. Sometimes I will also have to count cells, a task I did a lot of during my first week in the lab. It used to take me a very long time to count one sample but now I am much better. One of my favorite things to do in the afternoon is genotyping. I am completely fascinated by the process of gel electrophoresis, which makes the process of preparing and running the DNA samples exciting. In the afternoon, I may also prepare solutions for future experiments or watch the experiments being done by other members in the lab.

Overall, day to day life in a lab is always full of something new.


Sea Urchins, Baboons and Mice, Oh My!

Over the past week, myself and other members of the BSURF program had to give chalk talks; 8-minute talks about our project with nothing but a whiteboard and a marker. Even though I was nervous about giving my talk, I was looking forward to the talks. I had previously talked to some of the other students about their projects, but I wanted to know more about everyone’s project. Hearing about the diverse research opportunities gave me the opportunity to expand my knowledge on topics including Alzheimer’s and sea urchin embryos.

One talk that I found fascinating was entitled “Neural Circuitry for Vocalization in Mice”. The chalk talk was given by Alina Xiao, who is working in the Mooney Lab. Her project involves looking at a specific area in the brain to see if it is activated when male mice vocalize, whether it be for defense purposes or courtship. The project got my attention because humans vocalize all the time, yet I rarely think about how and why other animals vocalize. Seeing how mice use this trait compared to humans is interesting. I also enjoy learning about how how the activation of different pathways illicit different responses in the body. Besides being fascinated by the project, I was also impressed with the quality Alina’s talk. It was apparent that she had thoroughly rehearsed her talk and she enjoyed what she was doing. I cannot wait to see the results for her project at the end program.

Overall, everyone gave an amazing chalk talk. Even though we have four more weeks until we present our results (we hit the halfway point!!), I am excited to see how everyone’s projects turn out.

Interview with Dr. Hammer

As mentioned in my previous post, this summer I have been given the opportunity to work in the Hammer lab within the Department of Immunology. The lab is run by Dr. Gianna Hammer and I had the pleasure to interview her this past week. Before I started the fellowship, I had the opportunity to read about her research and her amazing accomplishments, which include being named a Pew Scholar in 2015. I remember being excited to work with such a talented individual, which is why I was excited to have the opportunity talk to her about her research endeavors.

Dr. Hammer went to Eastern Washington University for undergrad and received her Ph.D. from UC Berkley. She, at first, was interested in microbiology but switched her focus to immunology after taking a class in the subject. She liked how immunology was relevant to the discoveries going on. During her academic studies, people were starting to realize that the bacteria in the body had critical functions. The science is what lead her to the intestines. Throughout her research, she kept questioning all the results she obtained. The questions that she asked in her research led her to investigate the role of the immune system in the intestines.

During our interview, I asked Dr. Hammer what her most memorable experience has been thus far. The experience happened to be when she wrote her first manuscript while in graduate school. She wanted her PI to check over every section of the paper as completed them but they refused to read it until it was complete. When her PI finally read the paper, he had many critiques, but this process ended up being transformative. Dr. Hammer was able to learn the most compelling ways to present research to an audience and how to precisely explain data/results. The tools gained while writing this paper have stuck with her throughout her career.

One of my goals, as mentioned in my first blog post, is to learn what to do after failure. I asked Dr. Hammer “How do you overcome/embrace failure in the research field”. She responded by saying “Failure comes in many forms”. Failure could be an experiment that did not go the way you expected or being rejected for a grant. She said that disappointment comes but its important to keep an open mind. Sometimes the failed experiment allows you to focus on a different aspect of a topic. Dr. Hammer also said to talk to the science with other people because sometimes they will notice something that you didn’t.

Since I am new to research, I asked Dr. Hammer if she had any advice for students like me. The first thing she told me was not to be afraid to diversify. Try out different aspects and types of research. She also said to pursue research because it’s what you love. Research does not always produce rewards immediately, it can take years before the benefits appear. If you do not love what you are doing, then this work can become miserable.

Interviewing anyone who has had success in a field that you’re interested in is always such an eye-opening experience. I am beyond thankful for the chance to talk to Dr. Hammer about her experiences in research.

Dr. Gianna Hammer (Source: Department of Immunology, Duke School of Medicine)

What Am I Doing?

Week 2 of working in a lab is over and so far, it’s been a wonderful experience. Everyday I’m learning something new, which is always exciting.

As mentioned before, I am working in the Department of Immunology in Hammer Lab. This lab specializes in looking at the role of the immune system in the intestines. I will be joining onto a research project that involves dendritic cells.

In the intestines, you will find T-cells and B-cells, but you will also find mononuclear phagocytes (cells that engulf other cells) including macrophages (Mϕs) and dendritic cells (DCs). Both DCs and Mϕs are need for induction of active immunity in the intestines. Macrophages secrete cytokines. Even though both cells perform phagocytosis, Mϕs are better at it and frequently engulf bacteria/remove dead molecules in the intestines. Dendritic cells prime naïve T-cells and can prime T-reg cells. Unlike Mϕs, DCs can migrate between the intestines and lymph nodes. Both dendritic cells and macrophages share some surface markers. For example, both cells have MHC II (Major Histocompatibility Complex, Class II) protein markers. Each of these mononuclear phagocytes also have their own set of markers to differentiate the two cells. Mϕs have the markers CD14 and CD64. DCs have CD24 and CD26.

While performing flow cytometry (using a laser to count/sort cells based on programmable differences), a population of DCs that were CD14+ was discovered in the colon. CD14 is usually a marker found on Mϕs. The lab is currently trying to learn more about this population of DCs. The specific question that I will be working to answer this summer is “How does the ability of CD14+ DCs to do phagocytosis compare to not only that of the Mϕs and the ability of the other 3 populations of DCs?”. We hypothesize that the CD14+ DCs will be able to do phagocytosis just as well as the Mϕs.

I am excited to continue working on this project and to see the results we get back.

Diving into the World of Science

Being at Duke as opened me up to a plethora new and exciting experiences, one of these opportunities being the Biological Sciences Undergraduate Research Fellowship.  For the summer, I will be working within the Department of Immunology, specifically in the Hammer Lab. This will be my first experience in a laboratory. During the program, I hope develop knowledge about working within a lab, but to also learn about myself in the process.

Over the course of the summer, I hope to learn whether or not research is for me. Ever since I was in high school, I wanted to pursue a career in research. I felt that doing research would be the best way for me to use my skills to make a difference in the world. During this summer, I will be assisting my mentor with her research project, giving me plenty of hands-on experience within this field. Working in a lab everyday is the perfect way to figure out if this is something that I would to continue to pursue.

Working in the lab this summer will also teach me how to ask questions. There are times where it can be intimidating to ask a question, whether it be to the other people in the lab or to yourself. Asking questions is the key to gaining new knowledge and growing intellectually. I hope that while I work in this lab, I will become more comfortable with asking questions about things I do not understand. Hopefully, this will not only make me a better research scientist now but prepare me for future success.

As mentioned by one of the other BSURFers in our opening breakfast, working in a lab can show you what it is like to fail and what to do after failing. I had never really considered this idea beforehand but it is something that I would like to learn. Not every experiment will go the way you expect it to. Your research will not always point to the conclusion that you expected it to. The question is what do you do afterwards? What further questions do researchers ask?  It will be interesting to see how these questions will be answered within the lab.

This summer will be full of ups and downs, but I am excited to see where it will take me. I look forward to meeting and working with talented individuals during this program.

I am ready to dive into the world of research!

Cells, Cells, and More Cells.

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