Some Serious Monkey Business
Lucas Barrett
Senior, biology major
University of Kentucky

My Research Project

My research project was focused on using the African green monkey as a translational animal model for human disease. I was particularly interested in the gene that encodes for a protein known to be a component of cholesterol transport. The protein also has a natural ability to protect against certain parasites. In humans, two different versions of this gene have been associated with early-onset kidney disease. Our lab found a version of this gene in the African green monkey that is associated with high blood pressure, and I continued this discovery by looking for additional monkey species that have a similar version of the gene.

In order to find more monkeys with the insertion, I took tissue samples from animals at our vivarium, from which I then extracted DNA.  I also followed the kidney function of monkeys with different variations of the gene to discover whether it was associated with kidney disease in the African green monkey. I assessed kidney function by measuring chemical levels from blood and urine samples which helped determine whether this gene was a marker for kidney disease in this animal model. The main goal of this summer’s project was to identify the African green monkey as a model to study this specific type of kidney disease in humans through the investigation of alternate versions of this gene.

Realities of Research

Doing research has been both the most rewarding and most frustrating endeavor that I have ever undertaken. Being engaged in new scientific discovery is exciting, but the time and effort that go into research can be exhausting. A particularly difficult part of research this summer was troubleshooting why an experiment or laboratory technique did not work as expected.

I was most surprised at how acceptable and common it is to be wrong. Amazingly, in the scientific community, there is nothing inherently bad about being wrong as long as you learn from and adapt to the information you uncover. Working as part of a team in the lab was one of the best parts of this experience. Being able to discuss different projects and rely on others for help as they rely on you was enjoyable, and pushed me to be an expert on my assigned tasks. At the same time, I learned to be competent and well-versed in the other tasks going on in the lab.

Life as a Scientist

Working and living as a scientist for the summer was an experience full of joy and fun, but I also learned a lot that I didn’t know about the day-to-day life conducting research. I was fortunate to go for three weeks to the island of Saint Kitts in the Caribbean islands to do field work that involved collecting data and samples for the lab.

Most people I told about this trip assumed that a stay in the Caribbean would be laid back and more akin to a vacation than a work trip, but nothing could have been further from reality. Out of the 20 days we were on the island, we only took one day completely off from work and I did not anticipate how tiring it would be to work outside in a tropical climate. Despite falling into bed most days from exhaustion, I learned more every day and was fascinated by working with our live animal model; instead of simply working with blood, urine and tissue in the lab.

Lucas Barrett is a senior majoring in biology at the University of Kentucky in Lexington. He is a 2019 Undergraduate Summer Research Fellow (UGSRF) working in the laboratory of Dr. Jeffrey Osborn at the University of Kentucky.  Lucas’ fellowship is funded by the American Physiological Society. After graduation, Lucas plans to pursue a career as a physician-scientist studying human disease. He plans to enroll in a medical scientist program after finishing his degree at the University of Kentucky.

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