2020, senior, biology major/chemistry minor
University of North Carolina at Greensboro
My Research Project
Most living organisms rely heavily on oxygen (O2), a major component in an organism’s biochemical and metabolic functions. This isespecially important for the brain. When the brain is deprived of O2), injury and life-threatening situations can occur. We can learn a great deal from a neural system that has evolved to combat hypoxia (low oxygen levels) and anoxia (no oxygen) in the brain. During my summer research project, I focused on the Lithobates catesbeianus, most commonly known as the American bullfrog.
Though respiratory network activity ceases during severe hypoxia, the network is able to generate again upon reintroduction of O2 and return to its normal functions (Winmill RE, et al). How is this possible? By building upon background information, we hypothesized that inhibition of ATP synthesis through different routes in the presence of oxygen would resemble the anoxic response if metabolic failure contributes to the network shutdown. To test this hypothesis, I focused on the bullfrog’s cranial nerves and used them to record electrical brain activity. Depending on which part of the experiment I completed each day, a certain drug was administered to the brainstem to analyze its effects. Our findings showed that neurons in the frog brain can survive without ATP synthesis for extended periods of time with no impact on function after reoxygenation, suggesting that metabolism is an important contributor to allowing bullfrogs to survive anoxia.
Realities of Research
Research is one of the most important aspects of human advancement and development. Unsurprisingly, scientists have great responsibilities that pose many challenges. One of the biggest challenges of a scientist is the reality that research is unpredictable. Although my lab’s results generally supported my hypothesis, there were days when experiments did not work and I had to backtrack, figure out my mistakes and start over. Unpredictable results can also mean that your day is too unpredictable. I had to take initiative for what needed to be done and be responsible enough to make it happen. It surprised me that I wasn’t told what I needed to do every day, minute by minute. I had to take charge of my project. This is especially true for scientists who may be doing novel research or research not found in the available literature. While this aspect of research is challenging, it is also fun to brainstorm the best way to go about your research. For instance, I had to categorize and analyze the data collected of neuronal motor output of the bullfrogs.; This had not been done before and Ihad to learn analysis techniques as well as use my creativity and knowledge to create a system of categorization. Being able to highlight my passion for problem solving and creativity was what kept me so interested in research.
Life as a Scientist
White coats, colorful chemicals and a crazy, wild lab. This “Hollywood stereotype” may be what comes to mind for some people when they think about a scientist. As a first-generation minority, that’s what came to my mind as well. I had not been exposed to research as a career and only knew what I saw in the media. It was not until I received the 2019 Short-Term Research Education Program to Increase Diversity in Health-Related Research (STRIDE) fellowship that I was able to understand the life of a scientist—and it was drastically different from what I expected.
In my experience, there is no “day-to-day life” of a scientist. Every day was different. One day I may have dissected a brain from a frog, while the next, I analyzed data and the day after, I was expanding my knowledge further by reading scientific literature. Some days, I had lots of hands-on work and was really busy and other days, I had plenty of downtime. While this dynamic work environment was fun and exciting, it was also very challenging for me. I was fortunate enough, and will be forever grateful, for being placed within a lab team that helped me work through my hesitations this summer. My team consisted of another undergraduate student, a masters student and my principal investigator. Having these three people in my circle allowed me to transcend the expectations I had for myself. I hope that I can one day use this experience to expose young, first-generation minorities to what it means to be a scientist early in their careers. This is a tool I wish I had when I was younger.
Winmill RE, et al. “Development of the Respiratory Response to Hypoxia in the Isolated Brainstem of the Bullfrog Rana Catesbeiana.” The Journal of Experimental Biology, vol. 208, 2005, pp. 213–22
Bianca Okhaifor is a senior at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. She is a 2019 Short-Term Research Education Program to Increase Diversity in Health-Related Research (STRIDE) Fellow working in Dr. Joseph Santin’s lab at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Bianca’s fellowship is funded by the APS and a grant from the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (Grant #1 R25 HL115473-01). After graduation, Bianca plans to pursue a career as a physician and clinical researcher to focusing on her passion of working specifically with minority children with little to no access to healthcare.