Category Archives: Week 4

The Real Life Applications of Research!

When working in a lab, it can sometimes be hard to fully understand the clinical applications and practical elements of working on a project long term. This week, while listening to the chalk talks of my peers, Simone’s particularly stood out to me because it was a clinical application of research. I thought it was incredibly fascinating how her research is focused on creating a D4 assay to measure protein biomarkers in blood efficiently. In the past, the most common type of methodology for blood-based diagnostics is ELISA which is an enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay. However, there are a variety of downsides to this system as it requires a large amount of resources, and is not very simple to use. Therefore, Simone’s research is focused on the D4 assay which requires fewer resources and can be used with little user training, making this system much more efficient. 

The whole idea was very cool and her illustrations from her chalk talk truly helped to convey how exactly the machine will work. Special assay reagents are first coated onto a coated glass chip. Then, the sample, either blood or serum is added, which drives the D4 assay chip to completion. In addition, the assay is highly portable. The system has a cell-phone based detector for the sample which uses the camera to readout the fluorescence on the D4 assay, which can in turn detect the protein of interest. 

I also enjoyed taking a step back and looking at how these D4 assays could help provide detection for breast cancer or Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) using specific assays, which could help with earlier detection and treatment. In the breast cancer assay, she will be targeting a protein called HER2, which is found in breast cancer cells. If the assay is capable of identifying this protein, then the patients can be treated with anti-HER2 drugs, which can be hugely beneficial. There are also other clinical biomarkers that have been associated with breast cancer which Simone will be targeting, which include ER, PR and Ki67. If Simone and her lab can create a D4 assay that targets all of these biomarkers simultaneously, it will be easier to provide better treatment and care for patients. Simone is also studying MRSA, which is important because MRSA can resist antibiotics due to a specific protein called PBP2a. If a D4 assay can be used to detect PBP2a early on, MRSA treatment could become quicker and more efficient. 

Overall, since I wasn’t completely aware of this project, it was very cool to learn about something outside of the basic lab research. This project also helped me to realize that I may want to work on a clinical research project in the future. D4 assays seem to be a major part of the future of diagnostic medicine, and I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to learn about them through Simone’s chalk talk! 

They say a diamond is a girl’s best friend because it lasts forever. You know what else lasts forever? Plastic

As we continue to degrade our planet, we must find new ways to save the environment. Realistically stopping all carbon emissions will be impossible in the next few years and thus is not an option. Instead geoengineering might be the only way to save the planet from climate change. In a similar way the problem of plastic in our oceans must be addressed in this “outside the box” manner as well. While manually cleaning up our oceans is impossible considering the scale, alternatives must be considered. One of those alternatives is plastic degrading enzymes as discussed in Ella’s presentation.

Ella is working with Dr. Jason Somarelli on a genetically altered enzyme that can breakdown plastic. By using error prone PCR, she hopes to find a strain of bacteria that can breakdown plastic using a form of artificial selection of bacteria. A library of different bacterial strains will be made and will be used in testing. If such a strain could be found, billions of pounds of plastic could be degraded helping the fragile marine ecosystem avoid collapse. What surprised me from the presentation was not that by 2050 more plastic will be in the ocean than fish biomass, rather the fact that plastic doesn’t already outweigh marine fish is truly shocking. Saving the oceans is critical for the world not only because it’s the right thing to do. The ocean provides trillions of dollars in economic growth when considering tourism and the wild caught seafood market. Billions of people rely on the ocean for protein and its destruction would be the downfall of millions of people. Somali pirates only exist because the fishing industry in Somalia collapsed do to over-fishing and pollution. Since the fisherman in Somalia could no longer fish, they turned to piracy. Just imagine what would happen if this occurred worldwide.

One concern I do have is what if these plastics escape into society? imagine a world where bacteria is spreading that can destroy plastic. Society would crumble if plastic started to decay. industry and infrastructure would be destroyed leading to our downfall. Scientists for years have tried to fix problems with solutions that make things worse. Blue Tilapia is a fish native to Africa that was introduced in Florida to control algae. That backfired and now the species is causing environmental degradation. Due to erosion caused by bad farming practices, Kudzu was introduced to stop soil erosion. This plant later would spread like the weed it is causing massive forest loss due to its ability to choke out trees. When altering the environment, the consequences are often worse than the original problem. So while degrading plastic seems like a great thing, proceed with great caution.


Claire is SEA(u)RCHIN’ for the Answers!

When I think of wet labs, I think of researchers working with fruit flies or mice. I assumed that my fellow wet lab BSURFers worked with either drosphelia or mice like me. So when we had the opportunity to listen to each other’s chalk talks this week, I was stunned by Claire’s presentation and her research with sea urchins!

I was amazed by the further impacts of her project with sea urchins on humans. I would not have thought that we, as humans, had significant similarities to sea urchins. However, both humans and sea urchins are deuterostomes and have a transcription factor called brachyury: the focus of Claire’s research at the McClay Lab this summer. 

A key feature of deuterostomes is their sequence of embryo development; the first feature to develop is the blastopore.  The embryo turns inwards, or envaginates, to create a cavity known as the blastopore. The blastopore continues to stretch to the other side of the embryo that is also envaginating into a cavity known as the mouth. This process, called gastrulation, forms a gastrointestinal tract, and the McClay Lab believes that brachyury may play a crucial role in this stage of embryo development. Claire is studying what this specific protein controls by the interactions between the brachyury protein and other known genes that are associated with mouth and blastopore formation. By studying the mechanisms of sea urchin embryo development, the McClay Lab will potentially gain a better insight into human development! 

I never knew that research on sea urchins could lead to a deeper understanding in humans, but Claire’s chalk talk enlightened me. In fact, I truly enjoyed listening to all my peers’ research this week because I know the amount of work each and every one of us put into our projects; to know that we all stayed up late on the weekends to practice our chalk talks and to further simplify our research so others could understand makes me smile. I know everyone worked hard this week to create something wonderful to present in front of each other, and I am really glad that I have gotten to know everyone better over the past few weeks. I can’t wait for more memories and bonding moments with BSURF!

Some BSURFers exploring downtown Durham!

Claire and her practice chalk talk!



Microglia May be My Favorite Cells, but Astrocytes are a Close Second

This week during our morning meetings, each person in this year’s BSURF cohort gave an 8ish minute presentation about their research project, called a Chalk Talk. It is what it sounds like – no prepared visuals other than those you can draw on the board, making what you say and how you say it even more instrumental in the coherence of the talk. Hearing about everyone’s research was super cool, and one that stuck out to me was by Sophie, who spoke about her work relating to astrocytes and the CTNND2 gene.

This summer Sophie is working as part of the Eroglu lab, which does similar work to Staci Bilbo’s lab, which I am a part of this summer. So, it was really cool to hear about a peer diving in to a similar field of research. In her talk, Sophie stressed the importance of astrocyte cells: the most abundant glial cells in the mammalian brain as being critical regulators of brain development and physiology through their interactions with synapses and neuronal communication. Microglia (which I am looking in to this summer) and astrocytes are often considered together as instrumental cells in the brain for immune function and synapse regulation. As she has mentioned in her previous blog posts, Sophie is working with the CTNND2 gene and its role in production of the delta-catenin protein. Previously thought to exist only in neurons, this protein has recently been identified in astrocytes as well! This is really interesting, and poses the question of how alterations in this gene, and subsequently this protein, affect astrocyte cell adherence and general function.

I thought Sophie’s talk was very well structured: she spoke clearly, eloquently and her visuals (of astrocytes, her knock down CTNND2 paradigm, and synapses) were clearly well thought out. Because her research is so closely related to mine, I’m especially interested in the results of her work and the relation of CTNND2 in the ACC, a region of the brain heavily implicated in autism, and the brain focus of my project. The world of neurogenetics has taken us both by storm, working our brain’s to figure out how our brains work.


Microglia: The Coolest Team (of Cells) in the ACC (Not the Atlantic Coast Conference)

What’s up readers! It’s officially the halfway point of my time in the BSURF program, but it feels like it just started. My research is progressing quickly and I have a lot of exciting data to share next time I give an update on my project. However, for this week’s blog post, I will reflect on a fellow BSURFer’s Chalk Talk. Over the past week each of us spoke for 8 minutes about our projects in the lab using just the whiteboard and words to paint the picture of our research. I found myself curious throughout Kat’s talk, which was titled “Development, Microglia, and the ACC.” Kat works in the Bilbo Lab which studies neuron development in the brain with a focus on microglia. According to Kat’s Chalk Talk, microglia make up around 15% of the cells in the brain. They are critical to immune function in the brain, and their misregulation can lead to a variety of mental diseases. The Bilbo Lab has contextualized their research around Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), and they study the possible environmental factors that influence microglia development and contribute to Autism. A conclusion has been made in the field that genes alone cannot alone cause Autism, so it is extremely likely that environmental factors have a significant impact on a child’s likeliness to develop ASD. These factors can include heavy metals, chemicals, and pollution. Kat’s project focuses on the impact of pollution, which they simulate by exposing mice to diesel fuel. Kat’s project is to create a developmental timeline of microglia development in the Anterior Cingulate Cortex (ACC) in wild-type mice and mice exposed to diesel. She hypothesizes that the mice exposed to diesel will experience earlier neuronal synapse development than wild-type mice, but after the standard pruning process, fewer overall synapses will remain. The backbone of this hypothesis is that microglia moderate the timeline of synapse formation. Kat has begun creating this timeline of development by imaging slices of mouse brains under a high powered fluorescent microscope, counting the synapses seen, and plotting them on charts. She even mentioned that the images she creates are 3-dimensional, so I can’t wait to see them! This work seems very relevant to the modern world, where rates of ASD diagnosis are growing. I am so excited to see the final results of her project and see whether her hypothesis is true. Her talk was insightful and engaging, with plenty of drawings of microglia and depictions of charts. I enjoyed listening to her Chalk Talk!

Next week I will share a Day In The Life of my time in the lab. I’ll get to share some of the experiments I conduct on a weekly basis and show all you readers how I have been spending my summer! See ya then!


Jennifer Aniston, More Like JenniFIRING Action Potentials

Some people may call themselves fans of the iconic sitcom Friends, but how deep into the brain does this love go? In her chalk talk, Catherine detailed her work in the Glickfeld Lab, where she studies the neurobiology behind the visual system. She and her mentor are examining the synaptic organization of the visual cortices, with a particular emphasis on studying the pathways and connections between the primary visual cortex (V1) and higher visual areas (HVAs). While the V1 first processes most, if not all the incoming visual stimuli, it then projects its neurons to HVAs such as the posteromedial (PM), lateromedial (LM), and anterolateral (AM) areas. These HVAs process the finer details of visual stimuli, with special neurons catering to specific types of vision such as motion, converging lines, or color. One neuron might fire rapidly when it receives information that the stimulus is pink, but it might not fire at all when the object is blue. One particular case study, Catherine detailed, was where a woman had a neuron that “lit up”, or “fired”, whenever she was shown a picture of Jennifer Aniston, and wouldn’t light up for pictures of Bill Clinton or any other celebrity. This was both incredibly interesting and incredibly funny to me, and I couldn’t help but wonder if I had a Michael Scott neuron in my brain from watching the Office so much!

These unique neurons aren’t the only fascinating neurobiological mechanism in the visual system. Catherine explained surround suppression, another phenomenon that occurs in the visual system. As an incoming visual stimulus’ size increases, a neuron’s firing rate increases, reaches a threshold, and consequently decreases—instead of maintaining a steady increase in firing rate. The mechanism behind this strange occurrence is not yet known, and it is even more intriguing since there are differences in surround suppression. PM is unique to other HVAs, as LM and AM have similar surround suppression rates and magnitudes to V1 while PM does not. The expected decrease in firing after reaching the threshold does not occur and neurons in the PM will continue to fire, albeit at a slightly decreased rate. Catherine’s research aims, therefore, is to examine the difference between this phenomena between the HVAs. Specifically, she’s seeking an answer within the anatomical differences between the neurons that project from V1 to the HVAs.

These connections stretching from the V1 to the HVAs can be analyzed by measuring the width of the axon spread, or the width of the synaptic connections from the V1 to the PM. This could be related to convergence, in which multiple neurons from the V1 synapse onto a single neuron in the PM. In order to examine these anatomical differences between neuronal connections, Catherine is injecting a virus with fluorescent tags into the neurons of mice. During imaging, the fluorescence will illuminate the axons of the neurons of the visual system and allow for her to differentiate the magnitude of the axon spreads of the V1 and the PM to that of the V1 and the LM. If certain differences are found, it would indicate a reason behind the differences in surround suppression—and would consequently allow us to better understand the inner mechanisms of the visual system. 

As the weeks pass, I also better understand what Dr. G means by science, communication, and collaboration. Listening to my fellow Fellows’ chalk talks allowed me to glance into their worlds of neurobiology, embryology, biochemistry, and molecular biology. Gaining that little piece of insight from each speaker truly showed me how expansive, diverse, and unknown the current biological research field is, and it also let me to realize how lucky I am to have this BSURF experience. While we’ve only reached the halfway point this summer, I’m looking forward to see the culmination of our projects in the following weeks!

Fight Fire With Fire

I really enjoyed hearing everyone’s story of their ongoing scientific journey this past week and was able to gain a better glimpse into the multifaceted world of biology. But in light of the one of the most dire epidemics in America–the opioid crisis–I thought that John’s project was particularly inspiring and relevant. The current state of dealing with this issue in our country is at best tenuous: 11.4 million people have misused prescription opioids, and more than 130 have died every day from opioid-related drug overdoses (NCHS). In response to this, instead of developing a drug to tackle a certain disease, John is developing a drug to tackle a phenomenon that has often received less and much needed attention: addiction. I thought John’s question of whether or not certain drugs can be developed to curb addiction to pain-relieving drugs was both innovative and compelling, with far-reaching potential in helping a wide array of people.

In investigating his hypothesis, John’s goes about in a well-founded scientific manner. Rats are placed into a skinner box, in which they are trained to press a lever that then triggers an intravenous injection with a powerful synthetic opioid called Remi-fentanyl. To test the efficacy of anti-addiction drugs, the behavior of addicted rats previously injected with opioid are compared with control rats injected with saline. If the addicted rats exhibit less of a need for Remi-fentanyl after being administered with the drug that John is trying to develop, then it could have potential to fight off addiction and the opioid crisis. This experimental process I thought was a simple, yet effective strategy in isolating the effects of anti-addiction drugs. With an interesting and robust experimental set-up, I have become really curious as to how drugs are chosen to be tested and what types of drugs have already been shown to have some desired effect. 

As I reflect more on John’s exciting and intriguing project, a plethora of questions flood my mind in regards to the implications of this work. On the most basic level, I am wondering about the mechanistic pathways of these drugs. Even if these drugs suppresses a mental urge for opioids, can it also eliminate a physical dependence on these drugs that develops in addicted patients? On a similar note, these drugs have a very noble goal in mitigating addiction in order to help people, but how can they be administered if certain patients resist in receiving these drugs, especially if this anti-addiction drug isn’t able to provide nearly as many relieving effects as opioids? Furthermore, opioid addiction is caused by increased tolerance, but could these anti-addiction drugs have problems with tolerance and resistance themselves? I’m sure many of these questions will be answered and addressed if this project progresses into the drug development process, and I am definitely excited to be there for that and to hear more about it. 

Curious About Learning How Curiosity Affects Learning

When I was younger, I remember wondering about why things are the way they are. Like why is the sky blue? What causes the seasons? Why does it only snow when it’s cold outside? The world is full of so many unknowns, and curiosity is the driving factor that leads to discoveries about these unknowns. But something that Eleanor’s chalk talk made me realize was that curiosity is more than just asking deep questions about the world. By simply going through day to day life, humans are constantly curious and learning about the world around us, whether or not we are consciously aware of it.

Eleanor’s project is focused on exploring the relationship between engagement, curiosity, and memory through showing human participants art videos that gradually take the form of a recognizable object. As the video progresses and more information is given to the participant, engagement is varied by controlling when and what the participants are allowed to guess regarding the identity of the drawing shown. These differing levels of engagement are then hypothesized to result in different levels of self-reported curiosity. By testing the memories of the participants the next day, the researchers will be able to better understand the relationship between engagement and curiosity and how that relates to learning and memory in participants with varying personality traits.

I am excited to see how the factors of engagement and curiosity apply in an educational environment and what that means for students and teachers. I thought that the experimental-set up was really interesting because I feel like sometimes in classes, the teacher is telling you exactly what the answer is instead of allowing you to come to the answer by yourself at your own pace. Going off the hypothesis that the least engaged group of people will have the lowest levels of self-reported curiosity, it would be interesting to see how this correlates to in-classroom teaching methods. For example, would this be similar to a lecture-style class with the teacher telling the students exactly what the facts are and how to answer certain types of questions? 

I feel like a lot of what we are being taught in class is for the sake of learning what we need to know to do well on exams and get a good grade. Finding the best methods of teaching for each type of student can help get students genuinely interested in what they are learning. This would be a big step in improving the methods of teaching and making learning a more enjoyable and worthwhile experience for both students and teachers alike.

Mutant Bacteria… Can They Do It Better?

I really enjoyed the chalk talks this week and having the opportunity to present a snippet of my own research as well as learn more about my peers research. Of all the amazing presentations, one that really fascinated me was the research of Ella Gunady.

Ella is working in a Bass Connections Lab with Dr. Jason Somarelli on creating a mutant bacteria that can efficiently consume plastic. Aside from doing exciting work with real world applications that change how waste remains in our environment, I found the setup of Ella’s talk very easy to understand. Despite working in an entirely different field and realm form my own research, I was easily able to follow along with the explanations Ella gave us due to the sufficient background and great illustrations that she used.

In detail, Ella will be creating a library of mutant bacteria that can consume plastics and micro-plastics through an application of error-prone PCR on the bacteria that already degrades plastics naturally. After creating this library, Ella will be testing the efficiency of each of these mutants through exposure different environment compositions to identify the best candidate. The findings of this research will have significant implications for the environment, especially in communities that have high levels of waste.

In all, I cannot wait to see how all of my peers research translates into interesting   presentations as the end of the program!

Oh, The Place Cells You’ll Go!

I have been thinking about my project from one direction. As I am looking at a specific gene linked with autism, I know the process of how the gene is translated into mRNA then into a protein. After that the protein possibly stabilizes a cell adhesion molecule. The big picture goal would be to understand how this gene affects behavior. Knowing that when this gene is silenced, I could map the cellular processes which lead to behavioral abnormalities. Unfortunately, this thinking has not lead very far as we do not even know what cell adhesion molecule is stabilized by the protein. One of the many positive outcomes of listening to my talented peers present their chalk talks was it made me think about my project from a different direction. 

Alissa Kong’s research project is to analyze how visual manipulations affect spatial memory. When you move, your brain is aware of what you are doing. This cognitive ability is known as path integration. You also visually take in your surroundings; your brain is able to integrate this sensory stimuli into path integration. The Gong lab is focused on the role of place cells in this process. Place cells are hippocampal neurons which have been implicated in spatial memory. Alissa’s lab is using virtual reality to test the changes in how place cells fire in response to visual stimuli. 

In the hippocampus of mice, the Gong lab first injects a virus which transmits a protein into the place cells. The protein will bind to calcium and fluoresce, which allows for the mapping of when these cells fire. A 1-photon microscope attached to the mouse records the fluorescence data. These mice are then placed on a treadmill with a virtual reality display in front of them. The mice are divided into experimental and control groups. The control group mice see a normal track which they “virtually” run across. The experimental group runs across a track that has been altered in an unnatural way. This variable is designed to test how the brain uses visual information to correct path integration. During these tests, the 1-photon microscope records the fluorescence outputs from the path cells. Alissa has hypothesized that path cells will fire when the visual manipulation occurs indicating that these cells correct physical sensory information.

Alissa’s project is trying to understand one interesting ability of the brain by taking a video of the cells in a live mice. By imaging the firing of these cells, you can then begin to understand the mechanism that allows the cells to fire. The design of Alissa’s experiment made me think about the multitude of different angles to approach my research question and the very cool technologies that make these methods possible.

Microglia and Mice and Disorder, Oh My!

Going into week four of BSURF I was so excited to hear about all the great work my peers are doing in the lab. As the summer continues, I’m gaining a more holistic view of what science is and what scientific research looks like. From this week alone, I have learned so much about what biological research here at Duke encompasses, from studying the ultrasonic vocalizations of mice in helium to making mutant enzymes to degrade plastic. I would just like to thank everyone for sharing the stories of their research this week, you all did a great job!

One project that really stood out to me was Kat Beben’s. She is working in Dr. Staci Bilbo’s lab this summer and is characterizing the development of microglia in the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) of mice. Kat outlined the full goal of Dr.Bilbo’s lab: understanding the prenatal factors (genes, the environment, maternal stress) that can lead to autism spectrum disorder. Through previous research, the lab has come to identify microglia, the immune cells of the brain, as being important for synaptic pruning and refinement, making their disfunction detrimental to biological systems, notably resulting in an autistic phenotype, as shown in mice. The lab is asking if combined prenatal stressors alter this synapse formation and refinement. They are specifically looking at the ACC, since this cortical region is involved with emotional processing, learning, and memory. As Kat works to characterize the normal microglial development in mice, hopefully we can better understand how various stressors disrupt this pathway.

I found it really interesting how the meticulous study and manipulation of such a small system can have such a large and significant impact. In my experience in learning about neuroscience, the function and influence of microglia has often been overlooked, but it is clearly not to be taken lightly. I really admire the work this lab is doing, and it reinforces to me the importance of biological research. As Dr. G reminds us, science isn’t just moving colorless liquids from one vial to the next, although I’m sure we’ve all done this. It’s about discovering more and more about our universe, one question at a time. I can’t wait to see what we uncover!

Squeaking of Research …

This past week, everyone gave short chalk talks on the research they’re doing this summer. After a week of listening to seventeen different chalk talks, I gained new knowledge about a myriad of different research topics. One of the projects that caught my attention was Jaan’s research on dystonia, a movement disorder that causes muscles to uncontrollably contract. She explained a complicated topic clearly and articulately, and in those eight minutes I learned a lot of new information. 

When cells experience high stress, the protein pathway eIF2α typically responds by triggering phosphorylation. A hypothesis is that in dystonia patients, stress does not cause as much eIF2α phosphorylation as there should be. However, whether targeting eIF2α signaling can mitigate the symptoms of dystonia remains uncertain. Furthermore, it is important to identify the exact parts of the brain that are vulnerable to altered eIF2α signaling. 

Jaan is researching whether mice with dystonia have a dysregulated eIF2α pathway using western blot. By examining the brain tissue of the mice for eIF2α expression at various times throughout development, she can study whether there is a period of susceptibility in which pathway dysregulation happens. She can also investigate which specific brain regions have altered eIF2α signaling.

While listening to all of my peers present, I was surprised by how many of them are researching the brain. All of the neurology projects were studying different proteins, pathways, and brain regions. The impression I formed was that the details of how and why our brains function mostly remain a mystery to us. But that mystery has an exciting allure about it. After all, the heart of research is that despite all the science and knowledge we’ve discovered, there is still so much more that we don’t know.

Float Like a Butterfly, STING Like a Bee

Opioids are an impending crisis in this country and across the globe. The prescription of these heavy painkillers is highly controversial, with some medical professionals claiming that it’s too much and others claiming it’s too little— but we know one thing: substances like morphine and oxycodone are extremely powerful, but, more dangerously, extremely addictive. Knowing that these substances pose this threat, we ought to search for reliable alternatives that can improve people’s pain management without decimating their quality of life.

    As discussed in his chalk talk this week, Michael Lee’s lab is looking at pain response and reduction in the body through the use of a mouse model. Essentially, Michael’s job is to understand the pain threshold for mice through exposure to different stimuli, such as a filament poking their paws. He then observes if there is any notable behavioral change to determine if the mice are feeling pain. The project as a whole is exploring the use of a protein called STING (stimulator of interferon genes) that’s part of our innate immune response for its potential as a painkiller. Most painkillers attack the nervous system response for pain, but few do an adequate job of addressing the cycling neuroinflammation that accompanies injury, but STING, if expressed in greater amounts, could benefit people by offering a less addictive anti-inflammatory as a response to opiates or other commonly used pain killers.

    However, with STING, there are still concerns. Mainly, it needs to be target specific when expressed through therapeutic means. Pain is an essential signaling mechanism for the body in response to harm, and, though chronic pain is bad, pain does serve an important role in preserving our bodies. It’s certain that Michael’s research is both intriguing and applicable to everyday life, and I look forward to hearing more about what comes from his time in the lab.

No Pain, No Gain

The chalk talks we presented and listened to earlier this week were all really interesting, and everyone did a wonderful job of explaining what projects they’re working on this summer. But Michael’s chalk talk especially stood out to me, because while many of the projects, including mine, were mainly stuck on the primary stages of looking into and understanding certain processes before thinking about application, I thought Michael’s project on pain seemed to be a few steps ahead, being more developed in the sense that it is founded on well-researched principles and also has direct applications in health and medicine.

Michael’s project is centered around the STING protein, which is believed to be important in the regulation of pain and the immune system. Because STING is naturally found in the body to activate interferons, reducing neuroinflammation, and thus pain, his lab believes that increasing the amount of STING protein in the body could throw a wrench in the vicious cycle of chronic pain and possibly make strides towards discovering an effective solution to both cancer and the opioid crisis.

Michael’s experiments include poking mice with filaments that exert different levels of force in order to observe their response and tolerance to pain. His job will be to locate the exact threshold at which the mice are able to sense their own pain, but he is also working on eliminating other possible factors that might contribute to an increased pain response, of which includes anxiety, which will eventually allow for a clearer and more solid conclusion.

There’s still a lot to discover about the mechanisms and logistics behind STING, of course. But their project is built upon previous research that seems quite promising. Michael’s research is fascinating, and will be monumental if the results turn out positive. If we can control pain, without that leading to more and more problems, the world of injury and healing could change dramatically. But at this early stage, I wonder about long-term effects (which they are looking into at the Ji lab as well), practicality, and even future avenues: could pain eventually become something that can be eliminated entirely? And if so, should it be?

Either way, I loved hearing Michael’s chalk talk, which he presented in an engaging and articulate manner, and enjoyed having the chance to view pain from a perspective I’ve never thought to consider before. I’d always thought of pain as an essential part of being human, a warning sign to injury. But maybe, this relationship isn’t so clear cut. Maybe there’s something to discover that we never could have imagined.

And isn’t that what research is all about, anyway?

Law and Order SVU: How Curiosity Killed the Cat

Everyone did a great job on their chalk talks this past week and I can’t wait to see our completed research projects at our poster presentation!

One talk that particularly interested me was Eleanor’s description of her research on curiosity. Beginning with her description of curiosity as a demand that needed to be satiated, much like hunger, I was hooked. I’d never thought to describe curiosity in that way, but it does make sense. Have you ever had that gnawing feeling inside you when you asked yourself, “What if I …”? Whether you’re curious to see what bungee jumping feels like or what all the soda flavors taste like together in the same cup, you have this impulse inside you inspiring you to just try it and satisfy your curiosity.

Eleanor’s research revolves around cognitive tests with humans where art videos are drawn on a computer screen until they form a recognizable shape. Her central question is whether the level of autonomy participants had in guessing what the shape was determined their level of curiosity, and hypothesizes that this correlation will vary among people with more free or more risk-averse personalities. In the “organic” condition, participants could make an unlimited amount of guesses as to what the shape was. In the “when” condition, time autonomy was removed: the participants were prompted at prescribed times to make a guess. In the “when and what” condition, not only was their time autonomy removed, they weren’t even allowed to make their own guess and were given a guess by the experimenter! Sounds like an unhappy dictatorship to me, and it makes sense that the participants in the “when and what” condition will probably have the lowest levels of curiosity. She hypothesizes that people who identify as more risk-averse will have higher levels of curiosity in the “when” condition than the “organic” condition, but for people who identify as more free and open, the result will be the opposite. I suppose if you’re averse to risk, having to choose when to make a guess can be scary and dampen how much you actually want to make a guess to satisfy your curiosity. What if you guess too early, and risk being WRONG? But if you’re more free and easygoing, why would you want to be constrained by someone else deciding when you need to make a guess? You’re a strong independent woman!

I’ve never really thought about what category of people I fall into, but I suppose I’d consider myself more risk-averse. Having someone else decide what times I should be guessing makes me feel more comfortable: if the experimenters decided that this is a good time to guess, then clearly I should have a better idea of what the shape is at this point, and I’d be more confident making a guess. You learn something new about yourself every day, all thanks to cognitive neuroscience! Thank you Eleanor for sharing your fascinating research and I can’t wait to see where your project takes you!

Reduce, Reuse, Reinvent mutant plastic eating bacteria

Everyone had amazing chalk talks and I feel like I learned so much! This week, I especially enjoyed Ella’s chalk talk on making mutant enzymes that can degrade plastic. Although I am fascinated with the brain and the molecular biology that is being used to combat its diseases, Ella’s project caught my attention by addressing something bigger than ourselves and just as pertinent to our survival, the Earth.

At first, Ella really grabbed my attention with the estimate that by 2050 there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish. In high school I learned about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and other horrible pollutants in the water, but this prediction really put the problem in perspective, and frankly scared me. She then explained about the bacterium that can break down PET, which is found in all single-use water bottles. I was amazed that this bacterium even existed and how it had evolved to digest just what we need it to. Sadly, the enzyme that helps break down the plastic is not very effective right now, and that is where Ella’s project comes in.

Ella is using error prone PCR in order to make many different mutant versions of the enzyme PETase. I was blown away. I think using a machine that purposely makes errors in the enzymes DNA to create mutations to hopefully make this protein more effective is absolutely ingenious. She then would ligate the DNA into plasmids, transform the plasmids into E. coli, and test the bacteria’s ability to break down and survive on plastic effectively.

I also thought that Ella’s pictures of PCR and of the growth of the transformed E. coli made it much easier to understand than it otherwise would have been. Everything was well labeled, her protein pathways were easy to understand, and her talk flowed really nicely. I like how she connected it back to the big picture throughout her talk. For instance, in the middle of her talk she explained that the bacteria create a by product that can be used to create anti-freeze and will make cleaning up the oceans and using these bacteria economically enticing. Sadly, many people need a financial incentive in order to do the right thing. I really enjoyed this week and learning about everyone’s research.

If mice could talk

I really enjoyed Evelyn’s chalk talk on the ultrasonic vocalizations of mice because it presented a fascinating solution to a question I never would have thought to ask.  Her overarching question is whether or not mice are aware of their own vocalizations.  Before hearing her talk, I never would have considered the fact that mice might not be aware of their own vocalizations or that this ability that humans have to distinguish between self-generated and foreign sounds is actually pretty special.  Furthermore, once this interesting question was posed, a very creative way to test it was generated.  I admire the way her lab came up with a unique solution to a unique question.

In a nut shell, the lab tests whether mice can distinguish between self-generated and other noises by giving them helium and seeing how/if they react to the raised pitch of their voices.  If they adjust their vocalizations to a lower pitch or lower the volume of their vocalizations, it could indicate that they can distinguish which sounds they are producing and that they can discern that they sound different than usual and adjust accordingly.

However, even more interesting than the idea of giving mice helium to see if they notice when their voice changes is the important implications that it has for humans.  I was also impressed by this aspect of the presentation because while this research seems interesting and relevant to the study of neuroscience in mice, it is not immediately clear how it applies to humans.  Evelyn explained that this research can be applied to the study of schizophrenia, as people with schizophrenia often have difficulty distinguishing between self-generated and other sounds.  Thus, research on the ultrasonic vocalizations of mice can be used to better understand a disorder that affects hundreds of thousands of people and is not currently well understood.  That’s one of the most amazing things about science and research that I’ve discovered this summer: it always has broader implications that can make our world a better place.

So thanks Evelyn for the fascinating talk!  I can’t wait to learn what you discover!

Mouse Makeovers and Helium Voices

The words “Mouse House” kind of freak me out. Every time I hear it mentioned in lab, I can’t help but imagine walking between rows of cages piled ceiling-high, hundreds of beady eyes glowing in the darkness and watching my every move. I’m sure the Mouse House is not the house of horrors that I imagine it to be; nevertheless, I have so much admiration for everyone in BSURF who is working with mice for the first time this summer.

This week, I loved hearing Evelyn give a chalk talk on her experience in the Mooney Lab, researching the ultrasonic vocalizations of mice under the influence of helium. During our first week of BSURF, Evelyn and I sat on the bus together one morning on the way to our labs, and I was so intrigued as she described her project. She mentioned dyeing the backs of some female mice with platinum blonde hair dye to distinguish them from males, and placing mice in chambers with helium to observe changes in their voices during mating. It all sounded worlds away from my own project and was at once fascinating and a little amusing. I mean, can you imagine being a mouse and getting your hair dyed platinum blonde?

I’ve loved reading Evelyn’s blog posts and was excited to hear her give a chalk talk about her project. Two things in particular stood out to me. First, since Evelyn is studying whether or not mice are aware of the change in their voices when exposed to helium, she looks for changes that could indicate this awareness. This includes changes in the pitch, frequency, and amplitude of the mice’s ultrasonic vocalizations, and changes in mating behaviors. I think it’s really cool that Evelyn is studying something as abstract as awareness by observing concrete changes in vocalizations and physical behaviors. I suppose that this is a cornerstone of science as a whole–studying abstract or complicated concepts by observing tangible changes–but this whole science thing is all still new to me, and I’m constantly amazed by the ways in which scientists approach science. 

Second, Evelyn talked about how her lab’s research could have applications to mental disorders like schizophrenia, in which people are unable to distinguish between self-produced and external voices. It’s mind-boggling to me that Evelyn’s project draws a connection between things as seemingly disparate as mice in helium and schizophrenia. I suppose that’s yet another cornerstone of science–drawing connections between vastly different things because those connections help us understand the world a little better. I’m excited to hear about how Evelyn’s project progresses and about her adventures with her new mouse friends!