In the final few weeks of my internship, I created, edited and presented a summary of the research I’ve conducted and have garnered various skills, during one of our weekly meeting. Throughout this process, I learned the tactics and methods of presenting scientific research in an engaging and informative manner. With the help of my mentor, I created readable diagrams and charts and practiced my public speaking skills that included visually appealing powerpoint slides. I felt that concluding my internship by presenting what I’ve done to all the people who’ve supported me in the lab was a very appropriate summation of my summer.
In these past three months, I have evolved greatly as a scientist, student and educator. I’ve learned that research requires an exceptional amount of patience, determination and articulation, but, it can ultimately be very rewarding. I’ve spent many days troubleshooting our behavioral experiments or coding scripts before succeeding (though very frustrating). The patience and focus I’ve developed from this activity will transfer to other aspects of my life, too. I also learned how to read journal papers efficiently by deciphering graphs, extracting the main findings and analyzing presented data objectively. Lastly, I learned, from observing my mentor and teaching younger interns, like myself, aspects of how to be an effective STEM teacher.
The scientific knowledge I’ve gained from the journal clubs, lab meetings, and conducting literary research coincides well with the contents of my neuroscience class. I feel like I have a head start in my upcoming fall semester courses with this background. My lab studied various neural circuits and active brain regions that underlies depression, anxiety, schizophrenia and learning abilities. Through this internship, I was able to recognize and pick which specific topics intrigued me and what research questions could potentially develop into my own independent research project. I am looking forward to continuing my research experience at this lab, during the school year and next summer, while evolving further as a neuroscience researcher.
In the past few weeks, my lab partner and I have worked together to develop an operant chamber in which touch sensors from the mouse’s tongue activate a motor to deliver water through the same spout. We will use this apparatus to study the effects of stress on risk-taking behaviors and how the nucleus accumbens encodes information about risk in mice. One sensor when activated will dispense a moderate amount of sucrose water 100% of the time, while the other sensor will dispense a small amount for 75% of the time and a large amount 25%. A preference for this latter spout would mean that the mouse is willing to risk receiving a small amount if that means they can receive a large amount every once in awhile. A preference for the former spout would mean the mouse prefers to “play it safe.”
The operant set-up required me to test my knowledge of circuitry and electricity, solve engineering problems and create a functional script. Though challenging, this task called for patience, creativity, and determinism - ultimately, the final product was rewarding. We plan on using this operant chamber to test how the subjects’ risky behavior alters after restraint. Subjects will be water deprived overnight, then allowed three trials of 20 minutes each in the operant box, recording the number of times the subject drank from either spout. This experiment will be repeated but this time the subjects will be physically restrained for 10 minutes prior to entering the chamber. We hope to see that the subjects show more risky behavior after stress and that males and females differ - this experiment can provide insight into how stress or depression can lead to increased/decreased risky behavior.
I have also been working on consolidating and representing all my work from this summer on a poster - my project focused on developing a method for recording neural activity during chronic restraint stress - as part of the Barnard Summer Research Institute. My mentor has helped me enhance my scientific writing skills and taught me new writing tips and methods that I had not learned in my formal lab classes. Meanwhile, the PI of the lab has begun an undergraduate journal club in which we meet weekly to discuss published papers written by or related to our studies; this has definitely broadened my knowledge in the field and is a wonderful way to bond with the team.
I am preparing for the poster session, this upcoming Friday; I am looking forward to share with my fellow peers and my family what I have accomplished this summer. One challenging aspect of this presentation will be that I will have to practice explaining scientific concepts in layman's terms, a perfect test of my teaching abilities. I hope to end this internship on a positive note for the summer - I would like to continue working during the school year for not only research credit, but also, because I am interested in seeing how this experiment will turn out. In addition, I also would like to develop my own project idea.
In the first few weeks of my internship, I have been conducting and analyzing the results of behavioral experiments to study stress-induced, depressive-like behaviors in mice. A cohort of 28 mice were chronically stressed by physical restraint for thirty minutes a day, during a period of three weeks. I evaluated the changes within their sucrose preference and measured their social avoidance, since chronic stress is known to cause depression. Thus, it was hypothesized - and consequently confirmed - that the mice would lose weight, lose preference of sucrose water over regular water and decrease social interaction. We wanted to further analyze whether or not restraint-stressing the mice in a particular environment would make that environment aversive: a method known as conditioned place aversion (CPA). Unfortunately, results were not significant. We believe this could be due to poor experimental design or a failure of the mice to associate the environment with the stressful event.
In this short period of time, I learned to handle laboratory animals properly, build head drives (through which to optogenetically stimulate the mice), and perform perfusions to fix the brain tissue. In addition, I learned to code and process data through the MATLAB computer program and sort and classify neurons on the SpikeSort program. These newly acquired skills will prove valuable in my academic and research career in the neuroscience field. My mentor’s talent for teaching, keeping his students intrigued, and motivating them with their work serves as a model for how I would one day like to train my mentees. Through his mentorship, I was able to observe and learn from his unique teaching skills complementing my newly acquired lab skills.
In the following weeks, I hope to learn how to use the operant conditioning mechanisms in our lab, including Arduino - an open source electronic prototyping platform- that can be used in a number of ways. In our case, we will attempt to build a device to automatically dispense water and sense water consumption. It will be a challenging project that will require creative thinking, patience and determination. I hope to refresh my knowledge in circuitry and electronics with this next project, while enhancing my coding skills. I also hope to learn how to stain and analyze brain tissue sections that include gaining a better grasp on immunohistochemistry and neuroanatomy.
This internship thus far has been rewarding, exciting and challenging - my position puts all the material I mastered during the school year to the test and applies it to real life. Ultimately, by the end of the summer, I hope to have all the right tools under my belt to begin conducting an independent research project in preparation for my senior thesis.