Biological sciences (BS) and global health (BA)
Barrett at Arizona State University
My Research Project
Cardiac fibroblasts are cells in the heart that are involved in producing proteins such as collagen. An accumulation of these proteins leads to a medical diagnosis termed fibrosis, which plays a major role in the progression of heart failure. Proteins such as angiotensin II are known to activate fibroblasts and promote fibrosis. Reactive oxygen species (ROS) are unstable molecules in the cell that have been suspected to play a role in angiotensin-II-induced inflammation and, consequently, fibrosis. An imbalance of ROS in the cells is called oxidative stress. While no treatment is known to reverse fibrosis, a class of drugs known as angiotensin converting enzyme inhibitors (ACEI) are able to slow its progression, even after ACEI treatment has been stopped. However, it is unknown how ACEI treatment is able to protect against fibrosis.
In this experiment, I was tasked with investigating whether the protection against fibrosis was a consequence of a more favorable oxidative stress profile in response to angiotensin II treatment. Using heart tissue from the left ventricle of rats my lab was able to test our hypotheses. The rats were divided into three treatment groups, each treated for a total of six weeks, The treatment proposed on the rat models is depicted by the table below.
Because ACEI has been previously shown to protect against fibrosis, we hypothesized that hearts from hypertensive rats previously treated with ACEI would show decreased protein expression of pro- and anti-oxidant enzymes in response to angiotensin II, which corresponds to Group 3 in the table above. Understanding whether oxidative stress is altered due to prior ACEI treatment will allow for a better understanding of the mechanisms through which the heart can become more resistant to fibrosis. This may contribute to a better understanding of cardiac fibrosis and the development of novel treatments that may slow or prevent heart failure.
Realities of Research
It surprised me, but I quickly learned that research involved a great deal of trial and error. I learned that while every step in the research plan is well thought out, there is still a lot of uncertainty. However, that was not a bad thing, because that uncertainty is exactly what we are targeting through our research. We sought to understand things we did not already know. My experience this summer forced me to learn new techniques, such as those of western blotting, imaging via film, and technology and analysis. I was also been fortunate enough to shadow others in the lab and gain better understanding of several other procedures such as surgeries, cell culture and immunohistochemistry.
More often than not, the results I received were different from what I expected, which led to several discussions with my research host about possible explanations and potential next steps, very often being revised. It almost reminded me of the game “Chutes and Ladders.” We would make progress in the direction we expected, then come across unexpected results which sometimes brought us back to square one or took us in a new direction. I’m not entirely sure how many times we had to start over, but we certainly had to go back and change our plan several times. We actually just revised our research question a few weeks prior to wrapping up the summer research!
Life as a Scientist
The daily life of a scientist is much more than mixing chemicals and making graphs. My life as a scientist this summer provided me with insight into the reality of working in a research lab. Beyond the trial and error, the uncertainty and the constant learning that all made each day in this field so intriguing, there was also a great amount of collaboration involved. Working as part of a team was one of my favorite parts of being a scientist. I worked towards a common goal with my lab team, but also worked with people outside of my lab, even those whose research had a different focus. My least favorite part of working in the lab was how writing-intensive it was.
When picturing a scientist, a person in a lab coat working at a lab bench usually comes to mind. In reality, the life of a scientist involves a considerable amount of writing in order to obtain grants to fund the research and to communicate the research. While this hasn’t been completely applicable to my case (since I’m not writing grants—yet!), I would still consider it to be the “worst” part about the day-to-day life of a scientist. All in all, my time in the lab this summer allowed me to gain an invaluable understanding not only of the research project I worked on, but also the realities of research and the life of a scientist.
Amal Altaf is a junior double majoring in biological sciences and global health at Barrett, The Honors College at Arizona State University in Tempe, Ariz. She is a 2019 Undergraduate Summer Research Fellow (UGSRF) working in Dr. Taben Hale’s lab at the University of Arizona College of Medicine in Phoenix. Amal’s fellowship is funded by the American Physiological Society. Upon graduating, Amal hopes to pursue medical school to eventually practice as a physician