Author Archives: Kayla Palmer

A Summer Study: Respiratory Rehabilitation After Spinal Cord Injury
Amari Thomas
Senior, Biology
University of Florida
2019 STRIDE Fellow

My Research Project

The human body central nervous system.

Because the central nervous system is in control of every process taking place within the body, an injury to this system can be detrimental and sometimes fatal. Injuries to the cervical region of our spinal cord can be extremely difficult because they often lead to breathing impairment. The phrenic motor nucleus in this region innervates our diaphragm, which controls inhalation by creating a negative pressure ventilation system.

It has been shown that acute intermittent levels of low oxygen help to address the concern for the functional recovery of breathing after injury. This occurs because the phrenic motor nucleus elicits neuroplasticity. A key protein, phosphorylated-ERK (p-ERK), is involved mechanistically in the phrenic motor nuclei response to varying levels of low oxygen.

P-ERK’s expression can be analyzed through epifluorescent microscopy. The cervical spinal cord tissues were harvested from rodents and stained using inmunoflouresence, – a procedure that stains the tissues in a way that allows them to emit certain colors when viewed on a microscope. We injected cholera toxin B between the pleural cavity in the outer layers of the rodents’ lungs before injury, which allowed for selective localization of phrenic neurons. We imaged this tissue to assess different expression patterns of p-ERK after spinal injury and varying levels of intermittent hypoxia.

Once we analyzed the expression of p-ERK in phrenic motor neurons after spinal injury and intermittent hypoxia we were able to develop a better understanding of intermittent hypoxia and its elicited plasticity after spinal injury. This research will guide therapeutic strategies for improving breathing in people with spinal injury.

Life as a Scientist

Using rat models as a method for testing before human clinical trials.

My experience as a scientist this summer opened my eyes to the realities that occur behind the scenes of groundbreaking research. For example, I always believed clinical trials to be amazing advancements in research, but never truly understood all of the experiments that take place before humans are even brought into the picture. The work done in our lab on rats propose a model for human experimentation. This opportunity has also made me realize that things may not always go exactly as planned the first time around and that is perfectly okay. Often, these trials and errors allow us to learn more about the research we are doing in order to propose different hypotheses or use alternate methods. There is no right or wrong when it comes to research because it is a learning and growing experience.

Acknowledgements

Elisa Gonzalez-Rothi, DPT, PhD, Research Assistant Professor, University of Florida Department of Physical Therapy

Gordon S. Mitchell, PhD, Professor of Physical Therapy, University of Florida Department of Physical Therapy

Latoya Allen, PhD, University of Florida Department of Neuroscience

Marissa Ciesla, PhD, University of Florida Department of Neuroscience

Amari Thomas is a first-generation college student majoring in biology at the University of Florida in Gainesville. She was born and raised in Miami Gardens, Florida, where access to research labs and quality educational resources are minimal. Due to her academic success in grade-school and extracurricular involvement, Amari was accepted into one of the top universities in the country for her undergraduate education. She has continued to thrive in her undergraduate career by gaining dean’s list awards for academics, mentorship positions and an outstanding fellowship from the American Physiological Society. By working in a research lab, Amari has expanded her career options and strengthened her knowledge of the human body and its many processes. She hopes to obtain a medical license after graduating and plans to apply the knowledge learned in the research lab. Amari is a 2019 Short-Term Research Education Program to Increase Diversity in Health-Related Research (STRIDE) Fellow in the lab of Dr. Elisa Gonzalez-Rothi at the University of Florida in Gainesville. Amari’s fellowship is funded by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI; R25 HL115473-01).

The Circadian Rhythm’s Role in the Kidney
Emilio Roig
Junior, Microbiology & Cell Science
University of Florida
2019 STRIDE Fellow

My Research Project

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one out of every three people in U.S. is affected by high blood pressure, which is also known as hypertension. Hypertension is a serious health concern because it significantly increases the risk of heart disease, stroke and kidney damage. In healthy individuals, blood pressure dips at night, allowing the heart to experience a period of time in which it is not under significant stress. However, some individuals have been diagnosed with what is termed as “non-dipping” hypertension in which blood pressure is constantly elevated, putting them at greater risk for cardiovascular disease. The fluctuation of blood pressure between night and day is regulated by our body’s circadian clock. The circadian clock is the body’s intrinsic time keeper, telling us when to wake up, when to eat and when to sleep. At the molecular level, every cell in the body also contains its own clock, including kidney cells. To better understand the circadian contribution to blood pressure, my research project for the summer of 2019 has been focused on studying the role of Per1, is one of the main circadian regulators in the kidney. The kidneys are responsible for filtering blood and are directly involved in the control of blood pressure. By removing the circadian rhythm gene Per1 from a specific region of the kidney, its contribution to blood pressure can be determined by comparing it to normal individuals that have the Per1 gene. Our goal for this project was to demonstrate why some individuals develop hypertension or fail don’t experience the normal drop in blood pressure at rest. Understanding the mechanism behind why some people develop “non-dipping” hypertension could potentially lead to better cures and therapies, thereby lowering the risk of cardiovascular disease.

Realities of Research

Even though this was not my first time working in a lab, it was the first time that I began working full time. Five days a week, my day began at 9 a.m. and would finish at 5p.m. However, sometimes I would find myself in deep thought about my project beyond those hours. I learned quickly that research is taking a step out into the unknown, meaning taking time to truly understand the complexities of the body’s physiology. Often,the results of my experiments were unexpected and generated more questions than answers. Other times the experiments would simply fail; the first Western Blot I ever attempted was an adventure. By spending a large majority of time in the lab, I have gained a new appreciation for researchers. Being a researcher takes persistence, creativity and an open mind.

Life as a Scientist

My sheer curiosity about the world is what originally drove me to become involved in research as soon as I began college. The American Physiological Society gave me the opportunity to develop as a scientist, immersing me in the vast complexities of scientific phenomena. Science can often be frustrating because things don’t always go as planned. But the moment new discoveries are made, every failure along the way becomes irrelevant. Persistence took on a new meaning for me the moment I had begun trying my own experiments, and that’s the beauty of science. When something finally is successful, it can open a whole world of possibilities.

Emilio Roig is a junior majoring in microbiology and cell science at the University of Florida (UF), located in the city of Gainesville. He is a Short-Term Research Education Program to Increase Diversity in Health-Related Research (STRIDE) Fellow working in Dr. Michelle Gumz’s lab at the UF College of Medicine. His summer of research was funded by the American Physiological Society and through a grant from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (Grant #1 R25 HL115473-01). After graduation, Emilio plans to pursue a career in medicine so that he can fulfill his dream of preventing and curing disease.

Blood Flow and Other Bodily Functions: An Investigation of Vascular Function and Endurance Sports
Andrea Rico
Junior, Health Sciences
University of Texas at El Paso
2019 STRIDE Fellow

My Research Project

My research project was focused on measuring the vascular function and rate of blood flow in arteries of the upper and lower body extremities using flow- mediated dilation (FMD) and plethysmography. We investigated the differences in vascular function on endurance sports that are upper-body predominant, lower- body predominant and mixed combination. FMD is an advanced test that uses ultrasound to measure dilation changes in the diameter of arteries, such as those in the forearm. This is a method to assess the endothelial vascular function in humans. Plethysmography measures changes in volume of blood in different extremities like the upper- or lower-body extremities. These changes are measured with blood pressure cuffs attached to a machine known as the plethysmograph. This test can dictate the amount of blood flowing through the limb and time where peak blood flow happens. It is highly effective when it is used to find changes caused by blood flow. An endurance sport is any sport that has prolonged periods of physical stress. Swimming, for example, combines both cardio and light strength exercises mostly in the upper body, which trains the body to use oxygen more efficiently. Cycling combines both cardio and light strength exercises mostly in the lower body, increasing leg strength and endurance. American football involves a lot of resistance training in both upper and lower extremities. Comparing vascular function and structure in these three sports can help to determine specific changes with training modalities.

Realities of Research

This is my first time working in a lab and my first real research project, so it was pretty scary at first. However, as time passed, I started learning something new every day, including new techniques and skills. I slowly began to understand more about my project and its importance. It has been very exciting to be able to work on this project and being able to see the results.

Life as a Scientist

Working in a lab and being able to work with individuals who share the same passion has truly being an extraordinary experience. One of the greatest things that I personally have witnessed is seeing how all lab members collaborate with one another and help each other out. It has truly been an unforgettable experience to get to know everyone and share endless memories with one another. I love being part of a lab!

Andrea Rico is a junior at the University of Texas at El Paso majoring in health sciences. She is a 2019 Short-Term Research Education Program to Increase Diversity in Health-Related Research (STRIDE) Fellow working in Dr. Gurovich’s lab. Andrea’s fellowship is funded by the American Physiological Society and through a grant from the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (Grant #1 R25 HL115473-01). After graduation, Andrea hopes to pursue a PhD in occupational therapy and work at a local hospital or practice.

2019 Summer of Science – ABC, PCOS, NAFLD the Summer Science Alphabet
Jessica Myer
Sophomore, Health Science
University of Missouri
2019 STRIDE Fellow

My Research Project

Infographic produced by the National Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome Association containing statistics about PCOS and its symptoms.

This summer I had the opportunity to be an American Physiological Society (APS) Short-Term Research Education Program to Increase Diversity in Health-Related Research (STRIDE) Fellow and work alongside Dr. Stanley Andrisse in the endocrinology laboratories at Howard University and Georgetown University. Our labs study the mechanisms of polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), non–alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) and insulin resistance. PCOS is the leading cause of infertility among women and affects many more women than statistics suggest. As a consequence of premature use of hormonal birth control, a large population of women may be unaware that they have symptoms of PCOS. In order for our mouse model to exhibit the symptoms of PCOS, we gave them low-dose testosterone and monitored them. NAFLD is a continuum of liver inflammation that inhibits the liver’s ability to process lipids normally, which causes fat accumulation. We induced NAFLD in our mouse model by feeding a high-fat diet for 30 days before tissue extraction. We were specifically looking at the mechanisms behind the lipid accumulation in hopes of discovering how therapies for the reversal of consequences are associated with insulin resistance, NAFLD and PCOS. The better understanding of the processes will be beneficial to combating obesity and the sister diagnoses that come along with it.

Realities of Research

Example of a protein assay, which is completed to determine the concentration of proteins in each sample.

There have been many parts of research that surprised me or were not as I expected. The biggest shock to me was how long it would take to complete one process. For example, running a Western Blot —the main technique I have been doing—takes an entire day for each step. Western blots are used to detect specific proteins in samples. The entire cycle for one blot takes a week, but thankfully I was able to work with four blots at a time. I was surprised at how relaxed the lab environment was, as there was a lot of down time while tests are being run, but there is always something to work on. In the lab, I learned many techniques that were used to discover protein concentrations, RNA concentrations, protein presence and so much more. As expected, the experiments had their ups and downs. We had some great weeks of data and some days where I would take an image and not get any significant results. Overall, I would say that we made great progress this summer. Most of our results have been as expected; although, when we cross a road bump, there are many tweaks we can make. We can increase the amount of sample in our Western Blots, increase the time we block the blots between antibodies, increase wash time or increase the concentration of antibodies. If none of those steps resolve the problem, we go back to published research to see what other scientists have done and how we might be able to learn from them. We never had to start over due to error, but we did complete an extraction during my last few weeks of research which was the beginning of the sampling process.  I thought it was so cool to see exactly where the samples come from and how they are obtained. The research question has not changed. In fact, it has become more focused as we gained more data for the control and knock out samples. Our research is ongoing and I am excited to see what the future holds.

Life as a Scientist

The day-to-day life of a scientist is very rewarding. It is exciting to go into work and be able to see changes and progress that are being made. I was surprised by the laid-back environment and the independence of it all. Once I was fully trained on a technique, I was able to run it on my own and also how to correct errors. I was impressed with how much I was able to multitask in the lab. One of the best parts of working in a lab was being able to see the data come together as publishable images and also images that I took was a great experience. The biggest adjustment for me was getting up so early, since I worked in the lab—across the city—starting at 7a.m. Although this seemed so early at the beginning of the summer, it turned out to be perfect time. I was able to manage well my schedule and had the late afternoons and nights to explore the wonderful city of Washington D.C. I accomplished so much in the lab as well as had a wonderful tourist experience. The worst part of this summer was ending my summer research experience and leading back to school! I loved being in the lab and working with Tina and Bobby and the other lab assistants. Tina is about to start her third year of medical school at Howard University and Bobby went to international medical school and is applying for his Master’s in Public Health.

References

PCOS Challenge Inc. (Ed.). (n.d.). What is PCOS? Retrieved from https://www.pcoschallenge.org/what-is-pcos/

Stewart, C. (2016, November 14). Pierce BCA Protein Assay Kit For Quantitative Total Protein. Retrieved from https://www.biocompare.com/Product-Reviews/239559-Pierce-BCA-Protein-Assay-Kit-for-quantitative-total-protein/

Jessie Myer is a sophomore majoring in health science at the University of Missouri in Columbia, Mo. She is a 2019 Short-Term Research Education Program to Increase Diversity in Health-Related Research (STRIDE) Fellow working in Dr. Stanley Andrisse’s lab at the Howard University College of Medicine and Georgetown University Medical Center in Washington, D.C. Jessie’s fellowship is funded by the American Physiological Society and through a grant from the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (Grant #1 R25 HL115473-01). After graduation, Jessie plans to attend medical school and become a pediatric cardiologist.

Using CRISPR to Explain the ART of Artemisinin Analogs
Suhayl Khan
Senior, Health Science
Benedictine University
2019 STRIDE Fellow

My Research Project

Diagram showing how the CRISPR-Cas9 editing tool works.

Artemisinin is a drug derived from the Artemisia annua plant. It is known for its anti-malarial properties, but has also been found to have anti-cancer properties. The active portion of artemisinin is an oxygen-oxygen bond called an endoperoxide. When in contact with free iron in a cell, this endoperoxide breaks and creates oxygen radicals which are extremely reactive. These oxygen radicals then proceed to react with cellular components such as membranes and proteins which eventually leads to cell death. Previously, it had been found that DMR1 and HSM2—two analogs of artemisinin— are particularly effective in inducing cell death in cancer cell lines but not in normal cell lines. This summer, my lab and I worked on figuring out why this is so.

 

It has been found that cancer cells contain a higher iron concentration than normal cells. This higher iron concentration is due to higher concentrations of transferrin receptors—the receptor that transports iron into the cell— in cancer cells when compared to normal cells. We believe that the specificity of our artemisinin analogs to cancer cells is due to the higher concentration of iron in cancer cells. To test this, we planned to use Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats, or CRISPR, a gene editing technique that can remove the transferrin receptor gene in lung cancer cells. Then, we would test our analogs on these transfected cells to determine if a lower iron concentration would show the analogs as ineffective. However, we were unable to test our analogs on the transfected cells because the transfected cells died three days after successful transfection. This proved to us that transferrin receptor is required for cell growth and the proliferation of cancer cells, and that cancer cells cannot survive with low iron concentrations. In the future, we plan on using CRISPR to overexpress the transferrin receptor gene in normal lung cells and testing our analogs on these cells to see if the specificity of our artemisinin analogs is indeed due to iron concentration within the cell.

Realities of Research

Cell culture flasks and media in a laminar airflow hood.

Doing research this summer has been very enlightening. In all honesty, before starting research, I imagined it to be a bit boring. I couldn’t see myself really enjoying sitting at a bench and waiting for experiments to run and cells to grow. Surprisingly, when doing research on a subject that you enjoy, it all becomes very exciting. I have learned so much about cell culture techniques and how to maintain a lab this summer. I found myself waiting in anticipation for an experiment to finish because I was so curious to know the results.  I couldn’t wait for cells to grow to large, usable percentages because I wanted to get the next experiment running. Admittedly, it was always disappointing when certain experiments didn’t go as planned or when a lengthy experiment needed to be done multiple times due to errors in previous runs. However, I have learned that even when experiments yield unexpected results, those results still contribute to the research we are conducting. It is not uncommon for an experiment to produce strange results that only make sense after hours of thinking “How could this have happened?” Fortunately, all data that we obtained this summer—expected and unexpected—contributed to my original hypothesis

Life as a Scientist

My day-to-day life as a scientist consisted of waking up early, getting to lab and checking on the cells. Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday the cells have to be fed. If they have grown exponentially, they needed to be split into a new flask. The cell media must be warm, so I had to turn the water bath on and place tubes of media in the bath well before I needed them. I checked the cells under a microscope and estimated the amount of cell growth of each individual flask. If a flask had less than 80% cell growth, the media needed to be discarded and replaced. If a flask had cell growth of 80% or above, then the cells needed to be removed from the current flask and placed into a new one to give them more room to grow. After feeding and splitting was completed, I met with my research mentor and discussed what needed to be done for the rest of the day. The biggest surprise about being a scientist was realizing how little I know about my field of research. Going into research, I believed that I had decent knowledge of physiology and biochemistry. Despite this, I spent every day learning something new and interesting about these fields. My favorite part about research is that there always seems to be more to do. Because of this, there was never a moment where I was bored with nothing to do. That being said, my least favorite part was that there were certain days where an experiment was particularly long and I found myself either overwhelmed with the amount of work to be done or exhausted by the amount of work I completed. Fortunately, working as part of a lab team took a huge amount of stress and burden off of my shoulders. It was very nice to have people to talk to and help me out whenever I need help with a task. Overall, life as a scientist is very rewarding and I have learned so much since I started research this summer.

Suhayl Khan is a senior majoring in health science at Benedictine University in Lisle, Ill. He is a 2019 Short-Term Research Education Program to Increase Diversity in Health-Related Research (STRIDE) Fellow working in Dr. Jayashree Sarathy’s lab at Benedictine University. Suhayl’s fellowship is funded by the American Physiological Society and a grant from the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (Grant #1 R25 HL115473-01). After graduation, Suhayl plans to pursue a Master of Healthcare Administration or Master of Public Health.

2018 Summer of Science – Out of Breath

Research Project

My research project this summer has focused on evaluating lung function in patients with cystic fibrosis (CF), a disease that causes excessive mucus build-up in the lungs and digestive organs. Symptoms include substantial breathing difficulty and exercise intolerance, and patients with CF undergo hours of treatment per day that involve medication, chest physiotherapy, and exercise. One important medication is albuterol, a bronchodilator that ensures the delivery of antibiotics, steroids, and other inhaled treatments to airway tissues.

To assess lung function, these patients regularly do breathing tests where, after taking in a full breath, they breathe out as hard and fast as possible. I have been using a mathematical measure, called “slope ratio”, to evaluate these breathing tests and investigate the impact of albuterol and/or exercise on lung function. Lower slope ratios indicate improved airway function, and we hypothesized that albuterol and exercise would decrease slope ratios. My research may aid understanding of how albuterol and exercise affect the lung, which might eventually lead to better treatment strategies for lung disease.

Patients with CF performed the above-mentioned breathing tests during three separate visits: 1) after inhaling albuterol, 2) after exercise, and 3) after both albuterol and exercise. Following this data collection, research has been heavily data-based: the data from just nine patients took weeks to fully analyze. However, developing a conceptual understanding of “slope ratio” kept me engaged; I also developed my skills with writing code (i.e. macros in Excel) to streamline my data analysis, which was a fun learning experience. The results we obtained from our slope ratio analyses closely matched our research hypotheses, were quite interesting to interpret and made logical sense regarding the effects of albuterol and moderate-intensity exercise. Briefly, we found that albuterol decreased slope ratios significantly, suggesting albuterol improves airflow and drug delivery in previously congested airways.

Realities of Research

Mentally, scientists have to remain vigilant; when they encounter contradictions to their prior knowledge, they critically re-evaluate their hypotheses and conceptual understanding. I enjoyed interpreting results and discussing hemoglobin/slope ratio concepts with post-docs in the lab, both one-on-one and in daunting lab meetings. And while it was difficult to work with seemingly-endless data, learning how to write macros helped me to be productive, learn a new coding language, and keep myself engaged.

 

Winston Guo is a junior and Neuroscience major at the University of Minnesota- Twin Cities in Minneapolis, MN. He is a 2018 Undergraduate Research Excellence Fellowship (UGREF) recipient, and is working in Dr. Michael Joyner’s Human Integrative Physiology Lab at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN. Winston’s fellowship is funded by the APS. After graduation, Winston hopes to attend medical school and eventually become a practicing physician.
2018 Summer of Science – High blood pressure and your kidneys: A look at how we can limit hypertensive kidney injury

Research Project

It is estimated by the American Heart Association that over 103 million American’s have hypertension, more commonly known as high blood pressure, which can have many adverse effects on the health of an individual. The kidneys are the filtering system of our bodies and work to remove waste and excess products every single day. When an individual has high blood pressure the vessels carrying blood within the kidney can become damaged and cause an inflammatory response that can lead to impaired kidney function and injury. My project looks at how we can block inflammation caused by high blood pressure and preserve kidney function. We do this by administering an antibody, a protein that can bind to specific targets to block their function, thereby reducing the inflammatory signals in rats that are hypertensive. Over a two-week period, we monitor blood pressure, food intake, water intake, body weight, and urinary output to provide an index of kidney function. At the end of the two-week period, we harvest the kidneys and utilize microscopy and video imaging to directly determine kidney blood vessel function.  Using this approach, we can determine if the antibody treatment is protecting the kidney from hypertensive injury.  This information allows us to understand how inflammatory signals influence organ function and develop new targets for medications for individuals with high blood pressure.

Realities of Research

My experience in my research lab this summer has been pretty different from my past research experiences. My research in the past has focused mainly on cell culture and use of a mouse model for my work. This summer I utilized a rat model and equipment I was not accustomed to working with, such as, machines that measure rat blood pressures. With my experience, there was a bit of learning curve and presenting my project progress weekly at lab meetings was very intimidating at the beginning.  Shifting my focus to physiological research this summer also posed some challenges. When utilizing an animal model in physiological research there are many variables you have to account for. Most of these variables are out of your control so variation between experiments was common. Overall, this experience has helped shape who I am as a scientist and taught me how to successfully overcome obstacles. My project has produced promising data that suggests that inhibiting inflammation in kidneys that have been exposed to high blood pressure helps to preserve kidney function.

Life of a Scientist

A good day in lab usually consists of me coming into lab around 8AM and leaving around 5PM, but most days I find myself coming in early or leaving much later. I usually will take some work home with me but I always make sure I designate at least an hour every night to myself where I relax, catch up with friends, or catch up on my favorite shows. Although I tend to always be stressed about school work or a deadline, it’s made easier by the fact that I enjoy my work and what I study. I think the most rewarding part of any research undertaking is when you finish a project or find some promising data that help contribute to new scientific discoveries. Having an amazing lab team working alongside me also helps. I received some excellent guidance from many of the mentors in lab and especially from my PI who taught me the importance of oral and written scientific skills. I think it’s great having a close-knit group of individuals in lab that are always willing to help you succeed and help you troubleshoot an experiment when it does not work.

 

Brian Freeman is a senior at the University of California, Merced majoring in Biology with an emphasis in Microbiology and Immunology. He is a 2018 Short-Term Research Education Program to Increase Diversity in Health-Related Research (STRIDE) Fellow working with Dr. Edward Inscho at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. His fellowship is funded by the APS and a grant from the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institution (Grant #1 R25 HL115473-01). Upon graduating, Brian plans to enter a Biomedical PhD program and pursue a career in academia.
Seal Tissues, Antioxidants, and -80 Degree Freezers

Research Project

The Weddell Seal is able to hold its breath for 30 minutes at a time while diving in frigid Antarctic waters. To avoid running out of oxygen during this long dive, the seal collapses its lungs and restricts blood to only essential organs. In other mammals, the process of cutting off blood flow and the supply of oxygen to a tissue, only to reoxygenate those tissues at a later point (when the seal resurfaces) generates reactive oxygen species. The process causes oxidative stress, which damages the tissue. This summer I am studying some of the physiological adaptations that enable Weddell seals to avoid the detrimental effects of oxidative stress at a cellular level. At the moment I am focusing on catalase, an antioxidant enzyme that is good at breaking down hydrogen peroxide (a reactive oxygen species), to see if its activity is higher in seal tissues than in other mammals. The long-term goal of this research is to apply our understanding of how seals cope with oxidative stress to human organ transplants.

Realities of Research

This is my first time working in a lab so most everything has been entirely new to me, from the constant buzz of the -80 degree freezers to the techniques of growing cells to the precise technology. Besides learning many science skills, I’ve spent the last several weeks seeing how rare (and exciting!) it is for an experiment to work and yield significant results. Fingers crossed for the rest of my project!

Life of a Scientist

Besides working on my own research, I’ve been involved in numerous projects throughout the lab, so I’ve seen how research questions evolve and overlap and shift as researchers collaborate with one another. The aspect of collaboration within my lab has been one of the coolest things to witness this summer, especially since each researcher is doing distinct work. I’ve also loved getting to know my coworkers, and we’ve had cool conversations about new scientific discoveries and endless career options.

Throughout the summer, I’ve really appreciated being able to hold on to a big picture – of the real, live seals – even as I work at the microscopic, cellular level. I think this seal research is pretty darn cool.

 

Eliza Skoler is a senior Biology major and Neuroscience minor at Carleton College in Northfield, MN. She is a 2018 UGSRF fellow working in Dr. Allyson Hindle’s lab at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. She plans to pursue a career in public health.
Investigating the role of the androgen receptor in polycystic ovarian syndrome

Research Project

For the past summer, I have been working in laboratory of Dr. Sheng UW at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. In the Wu lab, we are investigating the etiology of polycystic ovarian syndrome or disease (PCOS/PCOD). One of the major clinical presentations of PCOS is high levels of androgens, a condition known as hyperandrogenism, and the Wu lab focuses on the androgen receptor (AR) which binds to androgen outside of cells and acts inside the cell to express certain genes. The mouse model that we use mimics hyperandrogenism by exposure to dihydrotestosterone (DHT), which is present in low amounts in women without PCOS. To investigate mechanisms of hyperandrogenism and the AR, knockout mice without the receptor are compared to control mice, enabling us to investigate the effects of differential levels of DHT and the role of the AR on fertility, gene expression, protein and RNA levels, adipose tissue, and ovarian morphology (Wu et al., 2014). Despite the prevalence of PCOS in women of reproductive age, and its association with metabolic dysfunction, infertility and hirsutism, the exact cause is not known and effective treatment options are not available. By elucidating the pathophysiology of PCOS, treatment can be designed to target the cause as opposed to only clinically managing the symptoms temporarily.

Realities of Research

Although the prospect of doing research in a lab might sound like it involves the use of expensive equipment and the newest technology (and in many cases this is very true), a large portion of research involves spending hours maintaining and genotyping new litters, waiting for assays and reactions to finish, and pipetting hundreds of samples. Experiments sometimes work, and at other times they fail and must be repeated. Small errors in pipetting or mindlessly forgetting to include a certain solution can cause time-consuming experiments to fail. But, the most critical learning experiences I have had thus far were assessing what went wrong and fixing it by. Results are also not immediate; it takes several weeks before the effects of DHT can be assessed. Confirming the genotypes of our mice is critical to make sure that we are investigating what we claim to be, and ensuring DHT surgeries are done at the correct time requires attention and organization. Preliminarily, the effects of DHT we have observed have been physiologically plausible, although much of the data collection of the study is still ongoing.

Life of a Scientist

Simultaneously, the best and worst parts about doing research in a lab are that the hours are flexible and I can plan my week. But, this also means spending evenings working due to long wait times for experiments that extend past the usual 9 to 5 working day, or because a protocol calls for a certain experiment to be done at a certain time. The independence is exciting, but can also be intimidating as I must be aware of what needs to be done and when. However, research is collaborative. As the youngest and most inexperienced person in my lab, I am always learning how to do new experiments and how to interpret and analyze data. Others are always offering me tips and tricks, supporting me when I fail, and helping me deal with my constant fear of getting bitten by mice. The most rewarding moments of the summer so far have been presenting data to my PI and co-PI, and teaching members of the lab how to complete a computerized tissue analysis that had not been done in our lab before. The most disappointing? Waking up early to complete a western blot protein analysis only for it to fail – not once, but multiple times!

References:

  1. Wu, S., Chen, Y., Fajobi, T., DiVall, S., Chang, C., Yeh, S. and Wolfe, A. (2014). Conditional Knockout of the Androgen Receptor in Gonadotropes Reveals Crucial Roles for Androgen in Gonadotropin Synthesis and Surge in Female Mice. Molecular Endocrinology, 28(10), pp.1670-1681.
Gopika Punchhi is a rising senior at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, MD, pursuing degrees in Molecular and Cellular Biology and Public Health Studies. Through the Undergraduate Summer Research Fellowship (UGSRF) program, she is spending the summer working under Sheng Wu, PhD, an associate professor in the department of Physiology at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. UGSRF is funded by the APS. Gopika plans on attending medical school to become and gynecologist or endocrinologist, while also continuing involvement in molecular and population-level research in these fields.
Sex Differences in Asthma

Research Project

This summer, I was involved in research with Dr. Silveyra at Penn State College of Medicine. We looked at microRNAs, which are small pieces of RNA involved in various processes in the cell, including regulation of how much of a certain protein is made. MicroRNA-106a is a microRNA that influences asthma in mouse lung immune cells, which cause inflammation. miRNA-106a does so by preventing an anti-inflammatory protein, IL-10, from being made. Because we knew that more adult females have asthma than adult males, we hypothesized that miRNA-106a would also be expressed differently between males and females. To investigate this hypothesis, we allowed several mice to develop asthma by repeatedly exposing them to house dust mites for 5 weeks. We then exposed the mice, along with additional mice that did not develop asthma as a control, to either ozone or filtered air for 3 hours. After that, we harvested the lungs and extracted the RNA from the tissue. We separated out miRNA-106a from the total RNA and determined its relative amount compared to the amount of another RNA that is always present in cells. We discovered several differences in how much miRNA-106a was present between males and females within treatment groups. Along with other factors, these differences in miRNA-106a levels in mice may play a role in the differences seen in human asthma, which affects about 8% of all people in the US. It could even lead to a new treatment for asthma that is specific to men or women.

Realities of Research

Doing research full time in a lab was more enjoyable than I expected. Each day looked different for me in terms of the tasks I needed to complete. I learned several new techniques, including RNA extraction and real time PCR, and I used these techniques very frequently throughout the summer. During the experiments, we had to repeat our real time PCR plates several times due to a lot of random error, and we had to repeat the RNA extraction for several samples because we didn’t get the amount of RNA we wanted. It was a long process, with many setbacks, but we finally got results from our experiments. We did see differences in the amount of miRNA-106a between males and females, but we did not see the differences that we expected. Because of this, we understood that miRNA-106a may not be causing all the differences seen between men and women with asthma, but other factors may cause the differences as well.

Life of a Scientist

As said earlier, the part I most appreciated about my summer as a scientist was that each day brought new tasks. However, experiments can take a long time to complete, with several setbacks and problems that need to be addressed along the way. There is no instant gratification; I had to work for every bit of data I had. But it is still rewarding when one can publish or present research at a conference, and other scientists listen and ask questions. To be a scientist, one must know how to work as a team and communicate clearly so everyone understands what their role is in the lab. I felt that my team was very good at doing that, and our lab environment was better for it. My lab team was a huge help to me in teaching me techniques, assisting me in carrying them out, and helping me to make sense of my results. All in all, the life of a scientist, though with many obstacles, is rewarding, and I would encourage anyone to check it out.

Rachel Steckbeck is a junior at Messiah College in Mechanicsburg, PA. She is a 2018 Undergraduate Summer Research Fellow (UGSRF), and worked in Dr. Silveyra’s lab at Penn State College of Medicine in the summer of 2018 for 10 weeks. UGSRF is funded by the American Physiological Society. In the future, Rachel hopes to attend medical school and work at a local hospital or practice.