We usually hear that we want more ozone in our atmosphere to protect us from the sun’s ultraviolet rays, but ozone isn’t always a good thing. That protective ozone is found in the stratosphere, while ozone on ground level is a harmful air pollutant caused by emissions from cars and factories. Ozone can do a lot of damage to human lungs, causing shortness of breath, coughing, inflammation and damage to airways, aggravation of lung diseases like asthma, and permanent lung damage. In response to ozone-induced injury, macrophages (immune cells which eat and break down viruses, bacteria, and dead cells) accumulate in the lung and contribute to inflammation and toxicity. Inflammation is important to get rid of any dangerous invaders or cell debris, but macrophages can also have damaging effects in the lungs.
We want to find out what can be done to reduce that inflammation and toxicity, so we are investigating valproic acid. Valproic acid is a fatty acid which has been shown to be anti-inflammatory and an antioxidant. My research project involves testing our hypothesis that valproic acid will reduce lung inflammation and toxicity caused by ozone-induced injury. To evaluate the effects of valproic acid on inflammation and toxicity, I stain thin slices of lung tissue by immunohistochemistry. In immunohistochemistry, the goal is to determine if alveolar macrophages are expressing markers of inflammation or toxicity – the more expression of a certain marker, the darker the macrophage should be stained. We expect that the lungs of mice treated with valproic acid will be less stained than the untreated if inflammation and toxicity are mitigated.
Caption: Smog over LA. Ozone is the main component in smog.(1)
Realities of Research
Like the bad and good faces of ozone, doing a research in the lab is slow-going, but also rewarding. The pace is slow because I dedicate a lot of time to troubleshooting the immunohistochemistry process. For each marker of interest, the protocol needs to be optimized. This is time-consuming because it means going through the immunostaining process repeatedly, changing small details each time. It was especially frustrating when the results were not what we expected. When our controls were repeatedly turning out different from how they had looked in previous experiments, we had to figure out if it was the fault of the sample, a detail in the protocol, or the antibody. I’m currently still working on figuring out the discrepancy by testing samples from other labs and different antibodies. If it’s the samples that are faulty, we will put a hold on the immunohistochemistry until we can use the samples from an animal exposure we have planned in a couple of weeks. If the antibodies are the problem, we will order new ones. If I’m doing something in the protocol incorrectly, my research mentor will watch me go through the steps and find out. This complication has been slowing down our progress, but it’ll be rewarding to finally figure it out and get data.
Life of a Scientist
Even excluding the satisfaction of getting data, I feel like I’ve grown a huge amount working as a scientist this summer since it was completely new for me. It’s my first experience working full-time, in addition to taking place in the unique environment of a research lab. I was happily surprised by the amount of flexibility in schedule – each person comes in and leaves when they need to, depending on the work they need to get done that day. Some days are a typical 9 to 5, some might be much shorter, and some might go late into the night. It can become overwhelming meeting new people, catching up on literature, and learning new lab techniques. However, it’s also satisfying to soak up so much new information so quickly and see myself developing as a scientist and a student every week. In my experience so far, the best part of working full-time is the people I have been able to get to know. Seeing the lab tech, the faculty, the grad students, the undergrads, and the high school students every day gives me the chance to really learn about what they do inside and outside the lab. Because of them, coming into the lab every day is welcoming and exciting, which makes all the difference when I’m frustrated with my experiments. Working with them is easy and most of all, fun, and I’m grateful I was able to do research with such encouraging and friendly people.
- Why smog standards are important for our health. (2018). Retrieved July 27,2018, from https://www.edf.org/health/why-smog-standards-are-important-our-health