I initially joined this lab because of my interest in pursuing a career related to nutrition and because I was seeking for a different experience from the wet lab internship from last summer. I’ve learned a lot and am coming to the realization that I still have a lot to learn, but so far, I’ve truly enjoyed my experience in a professional setting like this one. I’m also enjoying the comfort that I’m beginning to develop more at work because of the relationships that I’m beginning to build with my coworkers, the research coordinator, and the participants.
The clinical research that me and my team are conducting looks at the effects of mild sleep restriction on mood, cognitive, and physical performance. There have been several previous research regarding how sleep deprivation or a significant amount of sleep restriction leads to negative health implications. However, the period under which these studies are conducted are usually with more severe, acute, and short-term sleep restriction. Therefore, this study differs from others because it looks at a more long-term and mild sleep restriction and seeks how that affects individuals’ health, particularly their risk to obesity. We look at numerous areas to assess an individual’s health, including their food choice, which is documented in their food logs, and their rate of metabolism, which is measured by a procedure called the doubly labeled water method. Participants are first screened based on their sleep efficiency determined by an actigraph monitor (similar to a Fitbit). Then, they are enrolled into two 6-week-sessions, one of which the participant is asked to sleep 1.5 hours less. Furthermore, in their weekly visits, different procedures are conducted depending on the stage of the session (eg. MRI scans or blood and urine samples). The reason why this study is being done is that it will educate us more on how sleep restriction will affect specific aspects of people’s health and provide justification for future public health recommendations pertinent to this field.
Because this study started in November, 2016, we are still in the initial stages of collecting data and recruiting participants. My job in the lab covers a variety of tasks. Some tasks include entering food log entries into the Nutrition Data System for Research (NDSR), conducting screening procedures describing what the study entails to potential participants, and entering data from questionnaires and tests such as the psychomotor vigilance test for future data analysis. I enjoy interacting with the participants and learning about their background and occupation during their visits. However, when there are less scheduled visits during the day, I’m working on entering and organizing data into Excel in the drive. Because there are numerous tests and questionnaires for each participant, the amount of data entry I’ve been assigned to do was initially daunting. However, now that I’m beginning to realize how inexperienced I am with Excel programming, I’m excited to learn how to expand my hard skills in this area. Currently, I’ve been learning to input formulas to combine the data sets across different tests. I’ve been googling excel functions nonstop, watching tutorials, and asking my research coordinator (who is an Excel connoisseur). Realizing how inexperienced I am with Excel, even though I’ve been exposed to this program since elementary school, has given me the perspective of how important it is to have a strong foundational skill set before building on top of that. Sure, I’ve learned the basics of how to find the sum, the average, and making scattered plots from school, but I wasn’t exposed to using INDEX MATCH and CONCATENATE functions until today when I need it for more in-depth data organization and analysis. On top of that, witnessing how powerful these functions are is quite fun and exciting as well! My goal for the end of the study is to expand my hard skills set, especially with Excel and with another statistical program that I’m trying to learn – R.
Besides trying to expand my hard skills set to be able to contribute more to the team, it’s also been quite fun learning about the theoretical aspects of the study. For example, recently I was talking to the research coordinator of the reason why the fMRI test is being conducted and what it contributes to the study. He was saying that based on previous research, it’s been shown that with sleep restriction, individuals’ inhibition to stop themselves from eating what they know is not healthy/beneficial decreases while simultaneously, their rewards circuitry increases. It also just so happens that food that triggers the rewards circuitry are most likely to be junk food. In other words, when individuals get less sleep, they are more unlikely to stop themselves from eating junk food, which simultaneously tastes better than it would before. From these conclusions, the study developed a hypothesis that sleep restriction causes an increase in the intake of high-carbohydrate and high-fat foods, which leads to a higher susceptibility to obesity. The fMRI test gathers data to either support or deny this hypothesis. During the fMRI test, the participants look at pictures of objects or food items. Subsequently, they fill out a questionnaire describing how appealing that item seems to them at the moment. My goal by the end is to not only understand the procedures of the study, be able to run all the procedures included in the study, but also to truly comprehend the reason why each test/questionnaire/procedure is conducted.
On top of working within the lab, I’ve also had several opportunities to learn from the medical professionals around me and to utilize the resources from the medical center. For example, I went to a seminar talk with another fellow intern where a professor from UCSF was talking about his research describing how brown adipose fat tissue cells are developed in response to the cold environment. He was also talking about his current research in regards to the kind of metabolism that is utilized in entering and exiting torpor. It was such an exciting scene, watching medical professionals bounce their questions and knowledge back and forth.
All in all, it’s been a fun and challenging (in the best way possible!) ride so far, and I can’t wait to see where I’ll be in the next few weeks.