Tag Archives: research

STRIDE, Statins, and Scientific Research: The Perfect Way to Spend Summer Vacation

After googling the definition of the word science, one will find that it means “the intellectual activity encompassing the study of the structure and behavior of the physical world through observations and experiments.” In simpler terms, science is about being curious and learning all that one can about something in order to better understand it. That is exactly what I have had the opportunity to do this past summer under the APS STRIDE fellowship program.

 

Research Project

 In scientific research, to start designing a project, one must first come up with or ask a question that nobody really knows the answer to. With that, something many people don’t know is that high cholesterol has no symptoms; therefore, many people do not even know they have high cholesterol levels. And those who are being diagnosed are being prescribed medication to lower their risk for developing heart disease and decreasing their chances for having a stroke (2). These medications being prescribed, called statins, are one of the most effective cholesterol-lowering drugs available. However, approximately 10-12% of patients taking statins develop muscle pain and dysfunction, which can be intensified with exercise (1). It is unclear as to how exercise and statins work in combination to yield these side effects. Yet, it is important to gain a better understanding as to how they work together to affect one’s health. Therefore, I have been currently researching the effects of the mixture of these two treatments in ApoE-/- mice, whom genetically have high cholesterol, in hopes of generating new insight as to how statins and exercise impact the health of individuals with hypercholesterolemia to contribute to the development of the most successful treatment options that decrease the severity of complications (3).

 

Realities of Research

This fellowship has allowed me to develop not only a greater understanding for the science behind the subject of the project itself, but also for the process and effort to perform and accomplish the project as a whole. What is fascinating about conducting research is that each day presents something different to be accomplished or overcome. I was most surprised by how much planning, preparation, and practice must be done prior to the actual start of a project. Whether it is acquiring supplies, matching up schedules, or deciding what types of experiments to conduct, it all takes time and dedication to ensure that the project runs smoothly. With that, I also had to learn and practice new techniques, such as injecting the mice with statin medication, training the mice, performing muscle dissections, and developing tissue samples to analyze protein levels. With what we’ve accomplished so far, there is no specific data that indicates a major difference between the effects of exercise alone and exercise in combination with statin in mice with high cholesterol. However, we hope to see some difference in muscle force between the two groups after we finish our experiments, in which we then plan to determine if there is a cellular basis that is being affected by the statin medication that is causing a difference. And if there’s no variance, then we know that this specific model doesn’t support our original theory. We would next look at a different element of force, such as endurance instead of strength. But the reality and beauty of research is that you never know what you’re going to find.

Life of a Scientist

Not knowing what to expect is one of the best and worst parts of the life of being a scientist. It is not a typical Monday through Friday 9:00am – 5:00pm job where you do the same thing every single day. You’re constantly learning new things and applying what you have learned to something new; you make connections from the past to the present to try and understand how concepts are related yet different. But even with these enlightening moments, there can be downsides, too. Challenges are thrown at you every day, whether it’s scheduling conflicts, flooding issues, or the results don’t turn out like you expected. Again, that’s where the art of science comes along, in that one must learn how to overcome these obstacles by becoming adaptable to every situation, thinking creatively to find a new route or how one can stay on their original path, and collaborating with others to share ideas as how to approach each step.

This summer has been about STRIDE, statins, and scientific research all of which have inspired me to never stop learning, to never stop questioning, and to never stop searching for an answer. It doesn’t matter if one is titled as a scientist or not, these are actions everyone should implicate into their lives to learn about themselves and their passions and to learn more about the world around them.

 

McKenzie Temperly is a junior majoring in Health Sciences – Clinical & Applied and minoring in Chemistry at Drake University in Des Moines, IA. She is a 2018 Short-Term Research Education Program to Increase Diversity in Health-Related Research (STRIDE) Fellow working in Dr. Kimberly Huey’s lab at Drake University.  McKenzie’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, McKenzie plans to attend medical school and pursue an M.D./Ph.D. degree. She is currently interested in specializing in general/orthopedic surgery or emergency medicine intermixed with biomedical research within her chosen field.
Apoptosis! How Endoperoxides Could Be a Difference

Artemisinin – also known as Qinghoasu – is produced by the sweet wormwood tree Artemisia annua. For hundreds of years, unaware of its potential in treating cancer and malaria, the sweet wormwood tree was used in ancient Chinese medicine to treat fevers, which we now know were caused by the Malarial parasite. It wasn’t until 1972 that the Chinese scientist Youyou Too and her collaborators isolated the active anti-cancer and anti-malarial ingredient from Artemisia annua, Artemisinin. The active portion of Artemisinin is an oxygen-oxygen bond that forms free radicals when exposed to iron. These free radicals then disrupt cellular function, thereby inducing cell death. In the case of cancer cells, research has shown that most types of cancer cells have increased intake of iron compared to non-cancerous cells. As a result, iron reacts with Artemisinin, producing free radicals, inducing apoptosis, and causing cell death. Therefore, Artemisinin may also be effective when treating cancer. However, despite Artemisinin’s effect on cancer and malaria, there are disadvantages to its usage. Since Artemisinin constitutes less than only about 1% dry weight of the sweet wormwood plant it has limited availability in developing countries and it is very costly to extract. Additionally, the original Artemisinin molecule has trouble reaching its target due to its limited bioavailability. Therefore, we have synthesized analogues of Artemisinin that have the same oxygen-oxygen bond as the original Artemisinin molecule but are smaller and inexpensive to make. This Summer, my lab and I have been testing the novel analogues on A549 lung cancer, MCF7 breast cancer, BEAS-2B normal lung, and MCF10A normal mammary cell lines to see the effect of the analogues on inducing cell death. We have witnessed an increase in cell apoptosis in cancerous cells and not in normal cells and will continue testing the various analogues to find the one with the greatest efficacy at the lowest dose. 

Realities of Research

In my journey as a researcher, I have learned a lot about the advantages and downfalls of researching. Before entering Benedictine University, there was a stigma in my mind towards researching. I couldn’t imagine myself sitting in a lab because the idea of this sounded monotonous and unpleasing. Once I began researching, I realized the importance of it, making me love what I do now. Witnessing the novel drugs killing cancer cells was fascinating and exciting because I was able to make useful discoveries. Furthermore, I have gained knowledge on how to maintain various cancer and normal cell lines using proper cell culture protocol. I have seen just how easily cells can become contaminated and the headache involved with sterilizing everything and starting over. I have learned to follow safety protocols better to prevent future contamination. Additionally, I have become fluent in the usage of various lab equipment and techniques including the flow cytometer, absorbance reader, fluorescence microscope, Western Blotting, and protein assays. Having to perform some of these experiments multiple times due to errors I’ve made has helped me better my technique. Although not all the experiments I completed turned out how I wanted due to human error, the experiments that went correctly supported my original hypothesis.

Life of a Scientist

The day in the life of a scientist begins early in the morning. I wake up, get ready, and am in the lab by 9:00 am daily. Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday I begin the day by placing media to feed the cells in the water bath. While the media is warming up, I check confluency of the cells to determine whether I need to split them or just feed them. From there, I feed or split cells, clean the hood, and continue with the rest of the day. I then go to my research mentor’s office to determine which experiments need to be completed first, conduct those experiments, and end the day discussing the results. The best part of being a student researcher is the flexibility. I can do so many unique experiments with the cells I am growing, allowing me to test various things simultaneously. Additionally, I have a phenomenal research team and we enjoy conversing with one another. The worst part of researching is the long hours spent in the lab. It does get exhausting to be in the lab all day, however, with my great research group I find ways to help the time pass by. Researching has shown me the importance of interdisciplinary work with the collaboration between the organic chemistry lab and my lab, as well as the importance of effective communication.

 

Mohammed U. Haq is a senior majoring in Health Science at Benedictine University in Lisle, IL. He is a 2018 Undergraduate Student Research Fellow (UGSRF) working in Dr. Jayashree Sarathy’s physiology lab at Benedictine University in Lisle, IL. Mohammed’s fellowship is funded by APS. After graduation, Mohammed plans to pursue a career in medicine with an interest in conducting research in medical school.
What I Learned From 10 Weeks of Experimenting

My research project focuses on the Parkin protein found in the mitochondria of the cell. Mitochondria is essentially the energy source for cells. Without it, cells, organs and eventually the body would stop functioning. It is in high abundance in muscles that need energy to contract, such as the heart. Parkin helps in removing the damaged mitochondria from the cell, making room for healthy mitochondria to thrive. If Parkin is nonfunctioning, diseases such as type two diabetes and heart disease can arise.

My project analyzes Parkin expression in the hearts of four groups of rats: lean sized rats with a sensitivity to insulin, obese rats with insulin resistance, and two groups of both obese and lean rats that were placed on a diet. Overall, this will test the effect a restricted diet has on this proteins expression in the heart. We will monitor if something as simple as a diet will bring the protein back to normal levels. If the diet proves to restore protein levels, perhaps this will become an alternative to medication for specific heart diseases.

 

Realities of Research

I started research with the expectation that if I followed the protocol, everything should go right, and I would get results. I found to my surprise, that this was a huge misconception. Sometimes reagents expire, or machinery doesn’t work properly. Sometimes the building experiences a power outage. Although this can be a little disheartening, it made me appreciate the results I did obtain so much more. In our lab we had weekly duties/ chores, and everyone helped each other out. We had a very open and friendly atmosphere. If we had some downtime, we would help another person out with their experiment. This comes in handy when trying to balance starting an experiment over, all the while saving time. The results I ended up obtaining were not what we expected. When looking for my original protein the project was based on, we couldn’t get results. We then probed for another protein in the same pathway and obtained some data. This didn’t change the research question much because the proteins were in the same pathway.

 

Life of a Scientist

The Procedure I did was western blotting. It’s a two-day procedure: one long day (~10-12 hours) followed by a short day (~3 hours). I would usually catch the bus to lab at 10 am and leave anywhere from 8 pm to 4 am (a onetime occurrence). There are about six hours of waiting during the first day, so in this time I would make gels, refill buffers, work on assignments, or eat lunch. The best parts of lab work were learning new procedures and mastering them, obtaining results, and the friendships we made. I loved working as a team. Usually, one person would excel in one area and not in the other, so we became a unit, helping each other work our way towards results. The worst part was the unpredictable schedule. I became apprehensive to making plans, whether that be for scheduling doctor appointments or spending time with family and friends, because I didn’t know if I would need to start a part of an experiment over again and stay longer than expected.

 

Chelsy Cummings is attending the University of California Merced, Merced, CA. As a fellow in the STRIDE fellowship program, Chelsy is being hosted by Dr. Rudy M. Ortiz who is also a professor at the University of California Merced, Merced, CA. Chelsy’s future plans include studying abroad this fall. She is excited to be traveling to London to complete her studies and is looking forward to progressing her research project and presenting those findings at EB in Spring 2019. During that time, she will also be preparing for graduation and volunteering at Valley Children’s Hospital to acquire some experience in the medical field.
Learning to Become a Researcher

When people or animals feel threatened, their sympathetic nervous system, a.k.a. ‘fight-or-flight’ system, releases chemicals that increase their blood pressure and heart rate to prepare for fighting or fleeing danger.  Unfortunately, when someone is obese or eats a chronically high-fat diet, their fight-or-flight system can be in an almost permanent state of overdrive.  This can place too much strain on the heart and blood vessels, potentially leading to hypertension (high blood pressure) and subsequent cardiovascular disease such as a heart attack or stroke.  My research project for the summer was to identify specific pathways in the mouse brain that influence the fight-or-flight response.  More specifically, I aimed to determine how inhibition of the dorsomedial hypothalamus (an area of the brain) by neuropeptide-Y (a brain-specific chemical messenger) leads to decreased activity in the fight-or-flight system.  By determining how various chemicals and pathways in the body and brain influence the fight-or-flight system, we may be able to find new treatments for people who have hypertension, hopefully increasing their longevity by decreasing their risk for serious conditions like heart attack or stroke.

 

Working in a research lab is simply amazing.  There is an almost endless amount of techniques, equipment, and software available to learn how to use.  This summer I have learned how to perform immunohistochemistry, how to use a confocal microscope, and how to utilize different analysis software programs to interpret results from fluorescent images.  If time permits, I may even learn how to perform microinjection surgery on a mouse and how to use RNAscope to complement my immunohistochemistry experiments.

 

Two things that surprised me about working in a research lab were how time-consuming experiments can be, and how expensive research supplies are.  For instance, it takes a minimum of sixteen days post-injection before the mouse brains are ready for me to begin processing them.  The brains must then be frozen, sectioned, immunohistochemically treated, mounted onto slides, then imaged, all of which adds up to around thirty hours of processing for a set of three or four brains.  Additionally, much of the processing utilizes expensive solutions and equipment, such as the $400 primary antibody used in the immunohistochemistry, or the fluorescent microscope which costs around $55/day to use for imaging.  This experience helped me to realize the importance of organization, precision, and time-management when conducting an experiment, since any mistake could result in hundreds of dollars wasted and countless hours lost.  Thankfully the experiments I’ve conducted so far this summer have turned out great, and I look forward to starting my next large batch of experiments next week.

 

The day-to-day life of a scientist is highly variable based on my experience this summer.  During any one week I might complete a variety of different tasks based on the needs of my research project as well as the needs of my lab colleagues. While there are general deadlines to be met for certain things and some experiments that require assistance from others, for the most part I am free to schedule which tasks I will be working on for any given day.  One downside to working in research is that since certain equipment is too expensive for each lab to have one of their own, it must be purchased and shared by the whole department.  For instance, the fluorescent microscope that I use is a very popular tool for the type of research done in our department, so you must make a reservation in order to use it.  Unfortunately, if your imaging is taking longer than expected and you didn’t reserve enough time on the microscope to finish, you could end up waiting an entire week before another reservation is available.  Thankfully, with careful planning, this problem can usually be avoided.

 

Overall, working in research as part of a team with the members of my lab has been wonderful.  Each person has their own unique background in research, and since I’m the most junior member of the lab there is a wealth of knowledge I can learn from each of them.  I truly appreciate how much each of my lab colleagues is willing to teach me what they know, provide answers to my questions, and give me guidance for not only my research project, but for my education and career goals as well.

 

Alyssa Bonillas is a senior at Portland State University in Portland, OR, majoring in both Biology and Psychology.  She is a Hearst Fellow working in Dr. Virginia Brooks’ lab at the Oregon Health & Science University in Portland, OR.  Alyssa’s fellowship is funded by APS through a grant from the Hearst Foundation.  After graduation, Alyssa plans to further her education by completing an MD/PhD program, and continuing on to become a physician-scientist at an academic research institution.
Getting Salty About Hypertension

About 30% of the world’s population has hypertension due to a recent surge of salt in our diets (1). According to the American Heart Association, the average American eats more than 3,400 milligrams of sodium daily, while the ideal limit is 1,500 mg per day for most adults (2). So, how does your body know when you have ingested salt? Your brain has specialized cells that monitor the amount of sodium (and other ions or substances). Some of these cells are located in the Organum Ventral Lamina Terminus (OVLT). OVLT is one of a few special section of the brain that lacks a complete blood brain barrier that allows substances in the blood to pass more freely from the bloodstream to the brain. So, this section of the brain essentially has the equivalent of “x-ray vision”; it can “see” the particles in the blood, such as salt, and send messages throughout the body to initiate responses. One of these responses may be to increase blood pressure, which is known as salt-sensitive hypertension. Salt-sensitive hypertension refers to an increase in arterial blood pressure to an increase of salt intake.

 

Figure 1. Rat diagram with optogenetic set-up.

My project utilized a new innovative tool known as optogenetics to inhibit or “turn off” OVLT neurons during dehydration and acute NaCl loads. Optogenetics works by shining a light at different wavelengths at a region of the brain where a light activated or inhibited ion channel was injected via a virally-mediated delivery system. In my experiments, water intake, urine output, and blood pressure (via telemetry) were measured in rats dehydrated overnight or infused with a concentrated NaCl solution with or without the laser on to inhibit OVLT neurons. I found that when these neurons were inhibited, they would decrease the volume of water intake of the rats. Upon further investigation, if OVLT continues to prove to be a major contributor to salt-sensitive hypertension, we hope more methods will be developed and implemented in humans suffering from this disease.

 

Figure 2. Leica Vibratome used to take serial sections of brain to determine injection location. Credit: Dr. Sean D. Stocker’s Lab, University of Pittsburgh Medical Center

Research is a very rewarding occupation. Although experiments can be long and time sensitive, the outcome is worthwhile. As long as you are careful and perform experiments honestly, any result can be used to learn. Further, I was amazed by the techniques I used to complete my experiments. The science and technology behind them is very interesting and innovative. The use of optogenitics is relatively new and entails complex surgeries and sciences. Unfortunately, with complexity comes consequences, and I have hit some bumps in the road. The technology used on the rats was very fragile and could not be fixed if broken. In addition, since it is not possible to alter salt concentrations without altering other aspects of the rat, we had to test the secondary stimuli to see what affect they had on the rats’ behavior. I am not finished collected data yet for this summer, but the results appear promising. In addition, I still need to test more animals and determine if the injected virus hit OVLT in order to define my conclusions.

 

Upon arriving, I was most surprised by the dynamic of the lab. All lab members are working on separate projects, but with related goals. Work is mostly independent, yet the goal is interdependent.  Working with a lab team was a fulfilling experience and helped me gain a better understanding of my project. I was able to learn new things and make better sense of my project through communicating with my team members. The best part of my research is the technology and innovation associated with it. One of my favorites is the way we analyzed water intake by applying basic principles of circuits. During experiments, the rats are in cages with metal floor, plastic walls, and water bottles with metal spouts. A wire connected the floor to the spout of the water bottle, creating an incomplete circuit. When the rat takes a drink, it completes the circuit because it is touching both the metal spout and floor. This causes a voltage to occur, which is recorded on a computer application. This data is used to determine when the rats were drinking, and it can approximate water intake because duration of time at the water bottle spout correlates with the amount of water the rats ingested. In contrary, the worst part of my research was the delicacy of the animals. It is very disheartening when the head caps fall off the rats and no longer can be used for experiments. Another incommodious aspect was the time sensitivity of experiments. I have to give the rats time between experiments, so some days were much slower than others. All in all, the positive aspects of research have outweighed the negative, thus far. It has further peaked my interest in a future of biomedical research, and I would recommend anyone interested in the sciences with a love of problem solving to engage in research!

References

  1. Choi HY, Park HC, Ha SK. Salt Sensitivity and Hypertension: A Paradigm Shift from Kidney Malfunction to Vascular Endothelial Dysfunction. Electrolytes & Blood Pressure 13:7-16, 2015 [14 July 2017].
  2. How Much Sodium Should I Eat Per Day? [Online]. American Heart Association. https://sodiumbreakup.heart.org/how_much_sodium_should_i_eat?utm_source=SRI&utm_medium=HeartOrg&utm_term=Website&utm_content=SodiumAndSalt&utm_campaign=SodiumBreakup [14 July 2017].
Rachel Maile is a junior majoring in Biological Systems Engineering and minoring in Biomedical Engineering at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech) in Blacksburg, VA. She is a 2017 Undergraduate Summer Research Fellow (UGSRF) working in Dr. Sean D. Stocker’s lab at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center in Pittsburgh, PA. Rachel’s fellowship is funded by the APS and has enabled her to further her appreciation for research. After graduate, Rachel plans to perform biomedical research, using her engineering background and physiological expertise.
The Life of a Summer Student Researcher

Childhood obesity has become a major health issue in the United States recently. Research studies show that childhood obesity is associated with an increased risk of declined renal function, which is defined as renal injury. Since renal hyperfiltration, which is when the kidneys are working more to than needed, this leads to excessive amounts of protein to be produced in the urine (proteinuria). This condition is typically associated with obesity. The current study will determine if we prevent the renal hyperfiltration, can we decrease proteinuria and/or renal injury?

Working on ground breaking research and being in an environment that is focused and effective was eye-opening for me. I enjoyed being around scientists that had similar mindsets and were able to help me develop a scientific mind of my own. It surprised me that everyone was so open and welcoming to a new unexperienced college student. But it made me more comfortable, especially when some of my experiment’s failed, but they were very helpful and encouraging throughout the entire process. During my time in the lab the initial study I worked on was not successful, so I was give the study I have now and the results that were collected were what my research host expected and it was a successful study that will be continued.

Being a scientists is like riding a roller coaster every day that you enter into the lab. Some days you are so busy with experiments that you forget to eat lunch. But then other days are very slow, because you are waiting on data or results. It is a great environment to learn not only about science but about yourself, how you manage time, how you interact with people, and how well you work alone. I think the best part about being a scientist is that every day is a new challenge because every day you are working on something that could possibly change the world. I think that worst part is that even if you do everything correctly the data can still not turn out how you want it. But overall I really enjoyed the team aspect of working in a lab. Everyone in the lab helps everyone on their projects and vice versa, because everyone wants to see the lab/experiments succeed because it could have a positive impact on the world.

Alyssa Pennington is a senior majoring in Chemistry at Jackson State University. Alyssa is working in Dr. Jan Michael Williams lab at the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson, MS. Alyssa is a second year Short-Term Education Program for Underrepresented Persons (STRIDE) Fellow which is funded by the APS and a grant from the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (Grant # 1 R25 Hl115473-01). After graduation Alyssa plans to pursue a career in medicine and research.
Investigating the Role of Piezo2 in Serotonin Release

At the mention of serotonin, people commonly think of its role as regulating anxiety, mood, and happiness in the brain. However, 95% of the body’s serotonin is produced by enterochromaffin (EC) cells present in the tissue lining of the gut (1) before being taken up by platelets that circulate it throughout the body (2). The EC cell releases serotonin in response to mechanical and chemical stimulation, and this release differs depending on whether the body has been fed or is fasted (3). Gut-derived serotonin is important for regulating:

  • Stretch and contraction of the gut
  • Gut sensation
  • The ability for platelets to clot blood
  • Bone development
  • Blood pressure
  • Metabolism (1)

There are still many questions regarding how the EC cell releases serotonin. Recent studies from Dr. Beyder’s laboratory of Mayo Clinic discovered that a mechanosensitive ion channel called Piezo2 is present in human and mouse EC cells, and that Piezo2 is important for serotonin release in EC cell models after a mechanical force like pressure is applied (4, 5). In the broad scheme of things, understanding the role of Piezo2 in EC cell serotonin release and in regulation of blood serotonin levels could lead to future drug developments for gastrointestinal diseases.

A visual representation of serotonin release from EC cells and platelet uptake. Reference: Modified from Mawe & Hoffman. Nature Rev Gastro & Hep. 2013. (1)

Dr. Beyder’s laboratory created a mouse model with the Piezo2 gene knocked out of the gastrointestinal tissue lining the gut. These knockout mice can be compared to the control mice that do not have the Piezo2 gene removed to see how Piezo2 affects the physiology of the gut. My aims for my ten week research fellowship were:

  • To determine the role of Piezo2 in mechanosensitive EC cell serotonin release from primary EC cells from fed and fasted epithelial Piezo2 knockout and control mice
  • To determine the role of Piezo2 in systemic serotonin levels in fed and fasted epithelial Piezo2 knockout and control mice

As is the case with most research, everything did not turn out as planned!

In the first few weeks of my research project, I had already faced unexpected complications. I was planning to collect cells from mouse colon and place them on a special plate with the proper nutrients and environment to help them grow into what is called a primary culture. However, we were not able to take pictures to show that the primary cultures were present since we did not have a microscope lens that could fit the wells in the plate. With the limited time I had for the project, my team decided to focus on measuring whole gut serotonin instead. This highlights how quickly a research project can change and the many approaches a scientist can take to solve a problem. There were also times I would try a new technique to yield better results, but would ultimately go back to the original technique. Overall, the general research process was to look back to see how an experiment was done in the past, and then complete a series of trial and error cycles from there to optimize the protocol for my specific project.

After collecting and preparing samples, I ran a test called an enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA) that quantifies the amount of serotonin in a sample.

Amid the journal clubs and experiments, this summer I learned about the collaborative efforts required to be successful as a scientist. I shared equipment and bench space with other researchers in the lab, so we had to coordinate a schedule so that everyone could complete their experiments. I enjoyed getting to know the other members of the lab, many with diverse backgrounds and specialties. Every week the department had a lab meeting where someone from each lab would take turns presenting research updates. It was a great opportunity to learn about other projects that related to the enteric nervous system and new adjustments made to fix problems. That being said, life as a researcher has its challenges. There were days I would spend hours preparing an experiment, only to made a mistake that could have been prevented if I would have asked the right person. If I had to give any advice from my summer experience, I would say don’t be afraid to ask for help – especially if you are feeling discouraged! Everyone in a lab develops his or her own expertise in something, which makes it impossible to know everything. But one of the beauties of science is that there is still a lot for us to learn, and sometimes the most frustrating failures can bring unexpected discoveries.

References

  1. Mawe GM, Hoffman JM. Serotonin signalling in the gut–functions, dysfunctions and therapeutic targets. Nature Reviews: Gastroenterology and Hepatology 10: 473-86, 2013; 10.1038/nrgastro.2013.105.
  2. Berger M, Gray JA, Roth BL. The expanded biology of serotonin. Annu Rev Med. 60: 355-66, 2009; 10.1146/annurev.med.60.042307.110802.
  3. Sumara G, Sumara O, Kim JK, Karsenty G. Gut-derived serotonin is a multifunctional determinant to fasting adaptation. Cell Metab. 16: 588-600, 2012; 10.1016/j.cmet.2012.09.014.
  4. Wang F, Knutson K, Alcaino C, Linden DR, Gibbons SJ, Kashyap PK, Grover M, Oeckler R, Gottlieb PA, Li HJ, Leiter AB, Farrugia G, Beyder A. Mechanosensitive ion channel Piezo2 is important for enterochromaffin cell response to mechanical forces. J Physiol. 595: 79-91, 2016; 10.1113/JP272718 PMCID: PMC27392819.
  5. Alcaino C, Knutson K, Gottlieb PA, Farrugia G, Beyder A. Mechanosensitive ion channel Piezo2 is inhibited by D-GsMTx4. Channels. 11: 245-253, 2017; 10.1080/19336950.2017.1279370.
Alecia Alto attends the University of Minnesota Rochester in Rochester, MN. She is a 2017 Undergraduate Summer Research Fellow (UGSRF) doing research in Dr. Arthur Beyder’s lab at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN.  After graduating with a bachelor or science in health sciences, she is considering a career as a physician scientist.

 

Stressed Rats and a Stressed Undergraduate

Chronic stress leads to a greater likelihood of the development of many conditions including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), functional dyspepsia and other gastrointestinal (GI) dysfunction. This indicates a likely rearrangement of neural pathways and regulation, although the mechanisms of how this happens are not yet known. As an APS Undergraduate Summer Research Fellow, I worked for ten weeks under my research mentor Dr. R. Alberto Travagli studying the neurochemical oxytocin’s role in stress adaptation. My project focused on the regulation of oxytocin signals between the brain and GI tract under conditions of chronic stress in rats. In other words, I studied whether oxytocin has a different effect on the brain and gut of rats after they have been stressed.

Following a 5-day stress treatment on each rat, oxytocin was microinjected in the dorsal vagal complex (i.e. the brain area that directly signals the GI tract). The response to these injections on gastric tone and motility in two areas of the stomach were then recorded and analyzed. The research is still ongoing, but we hope to answer a few questions: How does the regulation of oxytocin change after stress adaptation? Does oxytocin work through different neural pathways after homotypic stress (i.e. same stress each day) or heterotypic stress (i.e. different stress each day)? Since females have a greater likelihood of developing GI disorders, do sex/estrogen levels affect the regulation of oxytocin under stress? Although we are still collecting data, I am very excited to see the results when completed and honored to participate in this research!

What surprised you most about working in the lab?

Upon starting this project, I was surprised by how much skill is required to complete the tasks at hand. Although the technology we use to inject oxytocin and record the gastric response is quite advanced, it can easily be faulted by a human mistake. For example, if I did not suture the sensors tight enough to the stomach, the responses were difficult to read and interpret. There was a huge learning curve to carrying out the research day-to-day and then it was another challenge to ensure I was as consistent as possible between animals. Additionally, I was surprised by how much my project changed between the beginning and end of the summer. For example, early on we injected a new pathway-blocker out of curiosity, expecting it to have little to no effect on oxytocin injections. Surprisingly, however, in one treatment group it seems to be blocking the effects of oxytocin. After, we used that pathway-blocker for every animal and its effects may be crucial to our final conclusions.

I am very grateful to the American Physiological Society for providing me this opportunity because it has made me realize how challenging a career as a basic research scientist is! This summer has exposed me to how exhausting, long, and physically demanding lab research can be. But, I love the big-picture parts of research; designing the experiments, analyzing the results, and adjusting when results are not as predicted. It is amazing to work on research that could be part of a bigger solution (i.e. understanding of anxiety/IBS/colonic pain), especially when you can collaborate with other researchers and pool data to come to even more conclusions within each study. However, I will admit that lab research is grueling work and, like the rats, I was a little stressed at times! I look forward to next year’s summer project so that I can experience translational or clinical research and gain a more holistic view of the research world.

Julia Zimmerman is a sophomore majoring in Neuroscience at Swarthmore College in Swarthmore, PA. She is a 2017 Undergraduate Summer Research Fellow (UGSRF) working in Dr. R. Alberto Travagli’s lab at Pennsylvania State University College of Medicine in Hershey, PA, funded by the APS. After graduation, Julia intends to pursue work as an MD-MPH, or MD-PhD, bridging basic research into the clinical world.
A Summer with Gryllus firmus
adult male sand field cricket

Credit: Paul M. Choate, University of Florida.

This past summer, I was awarded an American Physiological Society Integrative Organismal Systems Physiology (APS IOSP) fellowship, which enabled me to perform 10 weeks of intense research at my home institution, Penn State University. During those 10 weeks, I got to delve deeper into what it means to be a true research scientist. I also learned the importance of networking, and being truthful in my own work.

During my summer fellowship, I worked in an entomology lab under my research mentor Dr. Ruud Schilder studying Gryllus firmus, a sand field cricket usually found throughout the southeastern U.S. In nature, this species usually exists as either a long winged or short winged morph1. My research project entailed the use of a respirometer setup (shown below), a device that can be used for studying metabolic rate in small animals to examine whether metabolic rates differ significantly during development of these two morphs. In other words, are long-winged morphs more energetically costly to produce than short-winged morphs? Our research is still ongoing, and I am extremely excited awaiting to see the results when completed.  Understanding metabolic rate in the cricket community is particularly important because it can tell us a lot about their reproductive power as well as specific differences in their energetic pursuits.

lab setup

Respirometer setup. Credit: Avril C, Schilder Research Lab

When we look at smaller animals in comparison to larger animals, it appears that the smaller animals’ tissues are more active than that of their larger counter parts1. What we are trying to figure out is if this general rule applies to size difference during cricket development as well (ontogeny). In other words, my research will hopefully lead to an answer of the following the questions: Are the tissues of smaller more immature crickets more active than fully matured crickets? Does metabolic rate vary across the two different morphs significantly, across age, or both?

I cannot thank the American Physiological Society enough for allowing me this opportunity. I hope other STEM students will take the initiative to do a program like this sometime throughout their undergraduate career. In our endless evolving world, we need more research scientists to unlock the key and take leadership. In closing, I want to leave readers with two questions:

  1. How important is scientific research in today’s society?
  2. In 10 years, do you see the research scientist profession growing significantly? Why or Why not?

 

References:

  1. Zera, Anthony J., Jeffry Sall, and Kimberly Grudzinski. “Flight Muscle Polymorphism in the Cricket Gryllus Firmus: Muscle Characteristics and Their Influence on the Evolution of Flightlessness.” Physiol Biochem Zool Physiological and Biochemical Zoology 70.5 (1997): 519-29. Web.

 

Avril Cooper

 

 

 

 

Avril Cooper is a senior majoring in Biology at Penn State University. After graduation, she plans on pursuing a master’s degree in medical science and eventually going on to medical school.