My research project this summer focuses on the development of rehabilitative strategies used to combat respiratory dysfunction (the inability to breathe) in patients suffering from spinal cord injuries. Following a spinal cord injury, brainstem projections traveling down the spinal cord are severed, ultimately leading to paralysis of respiratory muscles such as the diaphragm. Consequently, breathing impairments are the primary cause of death for spinally-injured patients. This summer project focuses on a rehabilitative therapy known as intermittent hypoxia (IH) which involves brief and repeated exposures to low oxygen levels over a period of time. When given in low doses (>15 episodes/day), intermittent hypoxia can improve leg strength, walking function, and respiratory function in spinally injured rats and humans. On the other hand, high doses of intermittent hypoxia can elicit spinal inflammation and other pathological consequences. My study seeks to determine whether activation of a certain protein kinase that acts as a marker of inflammation, p38 MAP kinase, is increased in all dose protocols of intermittent hypoxia or just high dose intermittent hypoxia. Assessing the impact of p38 MAP kinase phosphorylation/activation is crucial for the development of safe and effective methods to restore respiratory function in individuals with a spinal cord injury. Currently my research subjects are rats; however, once our lab can ensure that low dose intermittent hypoxia is safe and non-harmful to humans, through my project and many others currently being conducted, we can transition our treatments from animals to humans.
What was it like doing research in a lab?
My research experience this summer was an eye-opening experience that, for the first time in my professional career, allowed me to devote all my time to the research I am passionate about. Conducting research in the lab alongside other undergraduate and graduate students, and post-doctoral fellows, was nerve-wracking yet very rewarding. When I first began my project, part of me was afraid to attempt tasks and techniques that were new to me for fear of ruining valuable data. However, to my surprise everyone in the lab was eager to help me in any way they could even if they were occupied with their own projects. I quickly learned that I would have to develop several techniques for my project to be a more independent and productive researcher. These techniques include immunohistochemistry (IHC) staining and imaging. Thus far, my experiment has been working, with all CTB injections, exposure treatments, perfusions, harvesting, and tissue sectioning going successfully. An unexpected mishap that occurred involved the immunohistochemistry staining. During our first IHC staining trial, we stained only a few of the tissues and had difficulty viewing the markers that were stained for when imaging. This was a result of having used an antibody at a wavelength of light that wasn’t appearing on the microscope. After reviewing literature and past protocols we decided on a different antibody that would produce better images. Although unfortunate, this setback demonstrated that while conducting research several things can go wrong but can just as easily be fixed. As for results, my project is still under the works as I have just reached the imaging phase.
I have found my experience as a scientist this summer to be both rewarding and stimulating. Every day when I come into lab, I am eager to jump into my project and engage in conversation with other researchers about the impact all of our research could one day have. My days consist of running experiments, performing animal care, cutting tissue, and whenever I have down time, reading papers. The best part of my research experience is collaborating with other members in the lab. I enjoy listening to the advice and thoughts of the other researchers because it gives me other perspectives on things. The worst part about being a research scientist is probably accepting mistakes and figuring out how to solve the problems. I found working as part of the team to be an educational experience that helped me improve my communication and leadership skills.