-Written by Nathan Ahlgrim
Research as a Summer Undergraduate Research Fellow (SURF) scholar has kept me in the same lab I have worked in for three years, but has thrown me into an entirely new role.
I now attend every lab meeting, am left to construct my own experiments, and am expected to work independently. Here in Dr. Glenn Matsushima’s lab, our efforts are focused on demyelination disorders of the central nervous system (CNS) like multiple sclerosis, and we attack the questions from many angles. All that means is I have a lot of training to do.
I have been trained to be able to work independently through all aspect of data collection. Since we work with a mouse model, I need treat and care for the mice, collect, prepare and label the brain tissue, and finally analyze the material. I am indebted to Drs. Taylor and Puranam for training me in these countless procedures, and the process of gaining these new skills has highlighted one of the greatest characteristics of research science. No one in our lab knows every procedure, and I myself have already instructed a post-doctoral scholar in a procedure I learned three weeks earlier. In such a specialized field, knowledge and experience has to constantly be shared in order to be expanded.
My efforts further understand demyelination disorders concern a gene called Pyk2 and its role in the glial cells of the CNS. Myelin is the insulating fatty tissue around our neurons in the brain which allow for quick and effective signal transduction. Without it, nerve impulses slow or fail. Our experimental mouse model is a Pyk2 knockout, which means it does not have that gene, so we can study how those mice react to demyelination as compared to normal mice. The Pyk2 protein acts in rearranging the cytoskeleton in a cell. If the cytoskeleton rearranges properly, the cell can move appropriately. Our hypothesis is that without this gene, key glial cells like microglia and oligodendrocyte precursor cells (OPCs) will not be able to migrate to damaged areas of the brain, worsening the effects of the disease. A major tool in this will be immunohistochemistry, which selectively labels cells that express a specific protein. As an example, the pictures show a staining of microglia (right) and OPCs (left). Doing so over a time course of the disease allows us to understand the movement of different cell types and how their presence or absence affects the end result of demyelination. This information will tell us more about the ways in which the CNS helps and hampers itself in demyelination disorders.
I have only just begun my work as a SURF scholar, and I am all but certain my project will not be complete with the closing of the summer. However, the preliminary data and early collection stages are promising, and I have my mentors’ guidance to help me through this long and complex process. Yes, my project requires many late nights and weekend hours, but as my supervisors have told me, ‘welcome to science.’