When people or animals feel threatened, their sympathetic nervous system, a.k.a. ‘fight-or-flight’ system, releases chemicals that increase their blood pressure and heart rate to prepare for fighting or fleeing danger. Unfortunately, when someone is obese or eats a chronically high-fat diet, their fight-or-flight system can be in an almost permanent state of overdrive. This can place too much strain on the heart and blood vessels, potentially leading to hypertension (high blood pressure) and subsequent cardiovascular disease such as a heart attack or stroke. My research project for the summer was to identify specific pathways in the mouse brain that influence the fight-or-flight response. More specifically, I aimed to determine how inhibition of the dorsomedial hypothalamus (an area of the brain) by neuropeptide-Y (a brain-specific chemical messenger) leads to decreased activity in the fight-or-flight system. By determining how various chemicals and pathways in the body and brain influence the fight-or-flight system, we may be able to find new treatments for people who have hypertension, hopefully increasing their longevity by decreasing their risk for serious conditions like heart attack or stroke.
Working in a research lab is simply amazing. There is an almost endless amount of techniques, equipment, and software available to learn how to use. This summer I have learned how to perform immunohistochemistry, how to use a confocal microscope, and how to utilize different analysis software programs to interpret results from fluorescent images. If time permits, I may even learn how to perform microinjection surgery on a mouse and how to use RNAscope to complement my immunohistochemistry experiments.
Two things that surprised me about working in a research lab were how time-consuming experiments can be, and how expensive research supplies are. For instance, it takes a minimum of sixteen days post-injection before the mouse brains are ready for me to begin processing them. The brains must then be frozen, sectioned, immunohistochemically treated, mounted onto slides, then imaged, all of which adds up to around thirty hours of processing for a set of three or four brains. Additionally, much of the processing utilizes expensive solutions and equipment, such as the $400 primary antibody used in the immunohistochemistry, or the fluorescent microscope which costs around $55/day to use for imaging. This experience helped me to realize the importance of organization, precision, and time-management when conducting an experiment, since any mistake could result in hundreds of dollars wasted and countless hours lost. Thankfully the experiments I’ve conducted so far this summer have turned out great, and I look forward to starting my next large batch of experiments next week.
The day-to-day life of a scientist is highly variable based on my experience this summer. During any one week I might complete a variety of different tasks based on the needs of my research project as well as the needs of my lab colleagues. While there are general deadlines to be met for certain things and some experiments that require assistance from others, for the most part I am free to schedule which tasks I will be working on for any given day. One downside to working in research is that since certain equipment is too expensive for each lab to have one of their own, it must be purchased and shared by the whole department. For instance, the fluorescent microscope that I use is a very popular tool for the type of research done in our department, so you must make a reservation in order to use it. Unfortunately, if your imaging is taking longer than expected and you didn’t reserve enough time on the microscope to finish, you could end up waiting an entire week before another reservation is available. Thankfully, with careful planning, this problem can usually be avoided.
Overall, working in research as part of a team with the members of my lab has been wonderful. Each person has their own unique background in research, and since I’m the most junior member of the lab there is a wealth of knowledge I can learn from each of them. I truly appreciate how much each of my lab colleagues is willing to teach me what they know, provide answers to my questions, and give me guidance for not only my research project, but for my education and career goals as well.