Over the summer, I have been conducting research in Dr. Sathish Venkatachalem’s lab at North Dakota State University. Our lab investigates the effects of sex steroid hormones such as estradiol on asthma. Asthma currently affects 1 in 13 people in the United States and results in 14.2 million doctor’s office visits each year.1 In recent years it has been discovered that pre-menopausal women have a higher rate of asthma than men, suggesting a role of hormones (a chemical secreted from glands) in asthma.2 While men have a small amount of estradiol secreted into their bloodstream, pre-menopausal women have much more estradiol which helps to regulate the menstrual cycle among other functions. My project focuses on how different hormones in men and women could have an impact on asthma. My focus is specifically on a specialized structure in cells called mitochondria. Mitochondria are largely known for converting energy into a usable form of adenosine trisphosphate (ATP), but they also play many other roles. For example, mitochondria act as a reservoir for calcium within the cell which is important because calcium is an essential component of contraction, cell signaling, and nerve cell function, among other roles. My hypothesis is that if mitochondria are not functioning properly to buffer calcium, they cannot help with calcium regulation which may cause more contraction in the muscle cells surrounding the lung airway. As a result, the airway could narrow, and breathing could become difficult if not impossible. My project investigates how mitochondria change shape in asthmatic conditions and whether they are working together as a team to regulate calcium in cells. It is crucial for mitochondria to buffer calcium so that proper contraction and relaxation of the lung airways can occur. Proteins called Drp1 and Mfn2 regulate the fusion and fission process between mitochondria and are key in my investigations into mitochondrial morphology. Fusion proteins cause mitochondria to bind together, while fission proteins cause mitochondria to break apart. If too many fission proteins are present in mitochondria it can result in increased breakage and the failure to properly buffer calcium. In the future, mitochondria could be a target for treatment of asthma to reduce contraction and allow a patient to breathe more easily.
Research is quite different from other punch-in punch-out jobs I have had. Often, experiments demand that you come early or stay late to get results. I have been fortunate to work under a graduate student who has helped me prioritize which experiments need to be done and at what time. Through the summer, I have come across quite a few challenges and I have found that my critical thinking skills have been sharpened because of it. For example, at the beginning of the summer I was trying to identify a certain protein within my mitochondria, but it proved to be elusive at first. Through trial and error, I modified the protocol of the experiment until proper results were obtained. During those weeks, I felt discouraged because it was not exciting to repeat the same experiment multiple times over. However, I learned to problem solve through scientific protocols and I grew as a researcher because of it. The part of my project that I have found the most rewarding is taking images of my mitochondria. Results come quickly because the mitochondria absorb a dye quickly, then they light up under my microscope. I have learned to view the pictures of those mitochondria as art; the bright green squiggles that show up on the imaging screen never fail to amaze me and remind me of what I can do in this field.
Being a scientist in a lab for ten weeks has revealed to me the need for creativity in science. When I did not know how to proceed with an experiment or a result, I had to think outside the box, ask other scientists, or modify the protocol. Some days were exciting because the data turned out very well after many days of work. Other days were packed with processing mitochondrial data in front of a computer. I really enjoyed that my day-to-day experience in the lab was constantly changing due to the different experiments that I had the opportunity to run. I was also surrounded by brilliant scientists and colleagues that were willing to explain a finding to me or sharpen my skill at a certain technique in the lab. I have learned that science needs to be collaborative because many minds combined are better than one. I am grateful to the American Physiological Society for the opportunity to learn these lessons during ten weeks of research this summer.
- (2018, April 24). Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/asthma/default.htm
- Sathish V, Martin YN, Prakash YS. Sex steroid signaling: implications for lung diseases. Pharmacology & therapeutics. 2015; 150:94-108.
- (2015, April 26). [Image of mitochondria]. Retrieved from https://www.bbc.com/news/health-32434347