My Semester “Under the Scope”

I began this semester as a budding scientist ready to enter the bright world of medical research… I end it completely hating science.

Just kidding. But this past semester did help me narrow my focus of what I truly enjoy about science. Being “forced” to commit or engage in a subject that I love made me understand how big science really is, and I’m not only speaking about the field of science in general, or even simply the field of biology. I learned that I only, genuinely, enjoy medical science, but even within this there are two spectrums: the application of said science or the research of new information within the science. I stay true to the statement from my first blog post when I said that it is important to learn about all the fields within science, but I have learned that focusing on what I really love about science is also very beneficial.

Research has been a huge part of my undergraduate career as a follower of science, but over the past three years, specifically this semester, I have reinforced the idea that my true passion doesn’t lie with research but with the application of science to help people. Reading research articles in order to write better grant proposals and to conduct better experiments is not the way I want to apply my knowledge. I want to help people directly with my knowledge, as a doctor. Getting into medical school has been a goal for me since childhood, but as I near completing that goal, I realize that I need to change my dreams.Not many people want to become doctors–even less have the will power and intelligence to do so–and even less follow through with it. But I don’t want to be just another person who “follows through with it.”

My coach always said “Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard.”

At the time, I would’ve been perfectly fine with having god given talent and not having to put in the work. Through my experience as a volunteer at a hospital, employee at a doctors office, and a grant-funded researcher, I have realized that giving extra effort makes all the difference. I have changed my goals from “just getting into med school” to exceeding in school and becoming a great overall doctor. I also realize that this isn’t a change that can be made overnight, so I plan to stop being lazy, going the extra mile, and really putting 100% effort into whatever I do. While my love for research has declined since I first walked into my lab, I am appreciative of the experience. It taught me valuable skills, but more importantly, it taught me to focus on what I want to do with science and what I need to do to be able to achieve my new goals.

Advertisements

Cocaine, Adderall, and the Brain

Dr. Ryan Bachtell gave a presentation at the University of Colorado on Cocaine’s affects on the brain, but not surprisingly (due to the abuse of the controlled substance by college students around the nation), the talk took a turn towards discussing Adderall, and its effects on the brain.

Psi Chi, Colorado’s psychology club, created the event and opened it up to students. The room was set up in the usual format of a presentation, with a projector and white board for the speaker, and pizza and soda to bribe students to attend. Dr. Bachtell began by talking about his achievements and previous research, building credibility with his audience. His talk was centered around the usage of cocaine and its effect on Brain-Derived Neurtrophic Factor (BDNF) activity in the nucleus accumbens, the area of the brain that determines pleasure and rewards. He described that cocaine increases BDNF activity in mice which led to increased self-administration of cocaine, indicating signs of addiction and tolerance.

Most of the students that attended, shown by a survey the Bachtell did at the beginning of the presentation, were psychology, not biology, students. Bachtell spoke in a highly, biologically-specific and technical manner that even I, a fourth year molecular cellular developmental biology student, had trouble following at times. I believe this caused the audience to doze off from time to time during the presentation, and I think Bachtell noticed this.
He then asked the audience if they knew anyone who took Adderall that wasn’t prescribed the medicine. Nearly everyone raised their hands.  He used this as a segue to his experiments of the effects of adderall on mice. I noticed, as I think he did too, that this peaked the majority of the audience’s interest. He asked people to share the myths they heard about using un-prescribed Adderall and then went on to debunk the false ones. He showed us images of neural activity in human brains on and off Adderall. He then went on to explain that prolonged usage of Adderall can actually change the way a brain functions, possibly creating ADD/ADHD-like functioning brains in people who have/had normal brains.

Bachtell’s powerpoint presentation was flawless. Slides with only pictures were supplemented with a thorough discription and explanation. He explained the mice brain images and was sure to emphasize that the results from the mice studies can allow extrapolation of theories to the effects of cocaine and Adderall on humans, but can’t be deemed as causal evidence because of the large differences between mice and human brains.

Bachtell then went on to give resources to addiction and abuse hotlines and told stories of people that failed to use these resources, which ultimately lead to their death. Bachtell finished his presentation with a Q/A and answered every question he was asked, no matter how loosely-linked the question was to his research. He drew figures on the board to explain complicated processes and would simplify his complicated explanations when asked.

While Bachtell didn’t deviate from the traditional presentation style in his body language or powerpoint, he did respond and change his presentation based on the audience’s interests. He used ethos by stating his achievements and previous resources, pathos by telling stories of cocaine-abuse patients, and logos with his research data to effectively convey his ultimate message of how and why abusing these substances is detrimental to physical and mental health of humans.

Cosmo’s Pizza: Not for the Sober-Hearted

Authors: C. R. Roberts, A. F. Price, R. D. Moghe, J. B. Arkin, B. D. Pereksta, J. A. McDaniel

Abstract:

We set out to confirm why Cosmo’s is so highly rated on some websites [4] and to refute the negative Yelp reviews [1][2][3]. By conducting a controlled chimpanzee study, we determined that there is a positive correlation between the blood alcohol concentration (BAC) and the value of Cosmo’s Pizza. From this study we moved to human trials in which we determined the satisfaction that young women (ages 18-22) received from the consumption of Cosmo’s Pizza when drunk, which also resulted in a positive correlation of satisfaction and BAC. To reinforce our data, we took a random sampling of students from the University of Colorado whose BAC was determined via a breathalyzer and asked them to verbally state their levels of satisfaction with Cosmo’s Pizza.

Introduction:

Previous reviews have stated that Cosmo’s pizza was a disappointment [1], not hot nor fresh [2], and insanely expensive [3]. We are studying the effects of alcohol on the satisfaction of the consumption of Cosmo’s pizza. We hypothesize that the above-stated downsides of Cosmo’s pizza are negligible when a subject’s blood alcohol concentration is above a .15, or 15%.

Methods:

Chimpanzee-based studies were first conducted to see the determined value of Cosmo’s pizza when sober compared to inebriated. This study involved the dosing of chimpanzees with intravenous ethanol (5 ml of 95% to achieve). Each chimpanzee was given a slice of Cosmo’s pizza and their normal diet of vegetables when sober, and after the introduction of alcohol. Their reaction was recorded.

Next, human-based studies consisting of college women (ages 18-22) who stated they were on a diet, were conducted. A similar study was conducted as on the chimpanzees. 100 women were given the choice between salad and pizza when sober and intoxicated (4 drink level over a period of 1 hour and 30 minutes). Their choices were recorded.

Finally, we took a random sampling of University of Colorado undergraduate students from the times of 12-2 am on wednesday through saturday nights and correlated their enjoyment with their level of sobriety (inverse of blood alcohol level). Students were given several slices of Cosmo’s pizza and a survey. They were given a breathalyzer to determine their BAC. Their enjoyment of the pizza was recorded based on answers to the survey questions.

Results:

With the chimpanzee study, we determined that the presence of ethanol in the system, rewires the neurocircuitry of the brain in a way that causes the value of Cosmo’s Pizza to increase from nil to immeasurable amounts.  We found that as the level of alcohol in the subject’s blood increased, their consumption and enjoyment of said consumption of Cosmo’s pizza increased. The chimpanzees refused to eat the pizza before the introduction of alcohol, while after their intoxication they consistently chose the pizza over their more standard foods.

In the study of college women on diets, the results were similar. Only 24 of the women chose Cosmo’s over the salad while sober. When they were intoxicated, the results were flipped with 75 of 100 women choosing Cosmo’s over salad.

In the final test, we saw that the level that students enjoyed Cosmo’s pizza peaked at a BAC of 0.15. However, we found that once the subject reached a blood alcohol level greater than .15, the subject’s enjoyment began to greatly diminish until the point of having a blood alcohol level of .4, which usually results in death. It is interesting to note, that students who ate the pizza with spicy ranch, consistently rated the pizza higher than those who did not.

Alcohol Dieting alcoholLimitations:

Limitations to this study should be considered when evaluating the data and results presented. During many trials, both the subjects and researchers had been exposed to copious amounts of ethanol which may have inhibited the researchers’ abilities to conduct experiments and the subjects abilities to denote value and ratings of satisfaction to our researchers.

Discussion: Subjects consistently chose the pizza over other options and showed a higher enjoyment of the pizza when intoxicated. This leads us to come to the conclusion that Cosmo’s pizza is in fact more desirable after the consumption of alcohol. Wiser food choices were foregone by subjects for the possibility of eating the pizza. Future testing needs to be done on the application of spicy ranch to the desirability of the pizza. We saw that some subjects chose to add it to their pizza and were consistently happier with their meal.

After conducting this study, the researchers decided to conduct on-field auto-ethnographic research. From what the researchers can remember, and it isn’t very much, our conclusions from both the subject-based and auto-ethnographic research supported our hypothesis. We must note that during this auto-ethnographic trial, 4 out of 6 of the researchers did not remember anything.

References:

[1] Jen A. Boston, MA

[2] Mike S. Boulder, Co

[3] Allison S. Boulder, Co

[4] http://www.thrillist.com/eat/nation/best-college-drunk-food

Three Dimensional Platforms for Cell Culture

This article, titled “A Versatile Synthetic Extracellular Matrix Mimic via Thiol-Norbornene Photopolymerization,” is about the basic structure and chemistry typical of a hydrogel system, similar to the system I will be using, and about why hydrogels are important. It also explains that because hydrogels can emulate the environment a cell experiences when inside the body, hydrogels can be used as a three dimensional platform for cell culture and for the studying of cells. Additionally, this hydrogel platform functions as a cell scaffold that the researchers explain could be used for transplanting cells. The researchers explain, “thiol-norbornene polyermizes via photoinitiation to form a matrix in which cells can be encapsulated within” [1]. Due to the “pore” size of the matrix, or the gaps in between the network, proteins and other small molecules necessary for cell viability can be swelled within the gel. This thiol-norbornene system is a good start for hydrogels, but the researchers explain potential problems of photopolyermization. Photopolymerization can create harmful radicals that can damage cells so a hydrogel system that doesn’t need photopolyermization would be more ideal. This article also demonstrates the dynamic capabilities of the matrix to change its density to those more similar to living tissue. This hydrogel system was used to keep stem cells that are pretty strong and durable alive. I am using this article because it was the first article I read when I entered my lab and it provided me with information about the basis of the research I was about to engage in. I currently use a different hydrogel polymer system that can have more delicate cells encapsulated within it and survive, but providing the background of why hydrogels are even created, for culturing cells, studying development of cells, and potentially transplanting cells, is important to convince the UROP grant committee that my research is beneficial and important.

[1]         B. D. Fairbanks, M. P. Schwartz, A. E. Halevi, C. R. Nuttelman, C. N. Bowman, K. S. Anseth, Adv. Mater. 2009, 21, 5005–5010.

Passive manipulation

In my last blog I described my co-worker’s opinion on how he communicates his research to a variety of different audiences. I have to agree that in my limited experience as a researcher, I have also begun to communicate in a similar way.

As many scientific discoveries are originally, or sometimes perpetually, controversial, the presenter of information must think carefully on whom their audience is. When speaking to the general public about getting better informed and taking initiative to learn more about topics they feel strongly opinionated on, it is not wise to berate them in a condescending manner. In this article, Ariel Schwartz speaks on an innovative technique that avoids the destruction of embryos when harvesting stem cells from them. She writes briefly about the process, since she is an editor and not a scientist, and then goes on to discuss the companies difficulties with politics. The company feels that, in regards to their work, “‘There’s a lot of education we have to do to make people aware of how this [works].'” The company understands that the distribution of knowledge between researchers and the public is a two way street and wisely uses words such as “we” to take part of the blame for the problem.

This article exemplifies being “political” and non-aggressive when trying to get someone to do something. In regards to my future as a doctor, I will have to tell patients to stop doing bad things that to me seem obvious but they continue to do. Using articles like this as a template, I understand that I will have to show them why this is bad without demeaning them. Often times unhealthy habits stem from an internal or emotional distress, so by being understanding of them and supportive, “we” (the patient and I) can work together to get them better. While I could try and strike fear into patients, and while this may work on some, I feel that in certain cases (such as this article) it is better to be passive rather than passive aggressive.

When I am a doctor, I will make public reader-friendly articles such as the above article in order to inform patients. I don’t believe that giving patients tips on how to prevent yourself from getting sick will hurt my business or be a waste of my time because in writing those articles I will be forced to look up the most current preventative treatments. By writing those articles I will become a more knowledgable doctor with healthier patients, but to get the information out there in a useable manner I will need to passively force people to get educated.

Will I ever leave school?

“Will I ever leave school?” This is a question that I often ask myself. My dream is to receive a M.D/Ph.D and to work as a doctor who conducts his own research. Medical School alone requires an extra 4 years (plus the years of residency) after college before I am officially a doctor, but the Ph.D will add another 4-6 years. That is over 10 additional years after college before I am doctor; I will be at minimum 32 years old before I begin my career. So why am I doing this to myself? Because I love science, specifically health related science. Going to school isn’t work for me (but it’s not quite play time either). It is a challenging activity that keeps me interested and productive. As a doctor with an M.D/Ph.D I will be familiar with conducting research which will allow me to excel at clinically related research. To get a better understanding of what lies ahead, I spoke with a co-worker in my lab who is currently in the “Ph.D” phase of his M.D/Ph.D program. This means that he has completed his first two years of medical school, in which he is constantly studying and taking tests, and is now conducting research. To put it simply, to get a Ph.D the candidate must have noteworthy publications (publications in prominent magazines such as Nature or Cell) and present his work at his dissertation. A committee from the school then decides whether he receives a Ph.D or not. I also asked my co-worker, Bali, the differences between communicating his work to people within his field, as opposed to people not in his field like the general public or grant committee members. He described the process as having four levels of how specific he needed to be. When writing a paper for a journal Bali needed to be very technical and formal. He can’t allow any emotion to seep into his writing as to avoid any accusations of his results having a bias. This was his top level for specificity. The next level, he described, occurred when giving a presentation at a conference to people in his field, or talking to his supervisor. Because this level involves communication through speech, Bali could put in his own opinions and emotions when describing the research. While he could not scream that he is conducting the best work in the world right now, he still needed to get people excited and interested in his research. The third level of specificity is used when Bali is writing a grant proposal. He told me that most often, the people on the grant committee are scientists but not scientists in the field of research you are proposing. He said that this requires him to still be formal, but because he is writing about why it is important that his research be funded, he is allowed to put in some of his voice.  He also writes his grant proposals in a very simplified manner. The board members are familiar with experimental design and the scientific methodology of thinking, but they do not necessarily need to know the specifics of “why the Hb9 gene-carrying stem cells express GFP when differentiated into motor neurons.” The final, and least specific, level Bali described is when speaking with friends, family, or other members of the non-scientific community. He says that when speaking to friends he tries to simply things as much as possible. The applications of his work are often much looser and he says that his work could help treat knee injuries, but if he were talking at a presentation a tighter application would be that his research can be used as a model system to understand why cartilage in knees gets damaged over time. Hearing this information from Bali has further increased my interest in striving for an M.D/Ph.D because I find that by learning how to speak about a subject in both a highly technical manner and very simple manner requires a greater understanding of the material. So, will I ever leave school? I will but I am not in a rush to do it, and who knows, maybe I will be the doctor that puts a nose on a guys forehead or the doctor-researcher that cures cancer.

(Insert pun involving nose here): http://www.edmontonjournal.com/health/Chinese+doctor+creates+nose+mans+forehead+ahead+unusual/8970477/story.html

Subjectivity in Science

While science, specifically scientific research, is a study area where facts and findings allegedly rule over emotion, emotion and motivation still play a major. There is no scientific research without funding, and while many researchers state that they are researching a specific topic solely for the “potential benefits to mankind”, the underlying, deciding factor for choosing what experiments to run is what experiment will get results that can be published in a major journal, which will lead to more grant funding.

This truth has raised a lot of controversy about scientific research. If people are only researching what will get them the most money then isn’t scientific research selfish?

No. Sure there may be some areas of research that are neglected because there is no funding to back that, but researchers do not get paid enough to consider their work “only for the money.” With all the negative connotations associated with being a researcher, ranging from being a nerd to being a machine, there are many other lucrative fields to pursue for those with the drive to do research.

Luckily for mankind, many of the areas of research that generate a lot of funding are areas which do benefit people. Of course there is research being conducted for seemingly shallow reasons (i.e plastic surgery), but even aesthetic scientific research can help save and better lives (burn victims, car crash victims, birth defects, etc). Then there is research that may or may not benefit people such as stem cell research. While it seems promising, stem cell research still could be a dead end. However large advances have been made in the past few decades that make stem cell research an area worth investing research money into.

Whether it is for selfish reasons or not, the pros of continuing scientific research outweigh the cons, so why not keep going?