Thursday, January 17, 2019

URSP Student Ahmad Alach Tests Common Assays for Detecting Reactive Oxygen Species

Since the beginning of this semester, I have had the privilege of working in Dr. Caroline Hoemann’s Biomaterials and Nanomedicine Laboratory as part of the OSCAR Undergraduate Research Scholars’ Program grant. Our project is focused on testing common assays for detecting reactive oxygen species (ROS) and developing a new, easy, and efficient alternative one. The reason I became interested in this project is its usefulness in finding a way to quantify and rid the body of excess ROS that can become toxic. These ROS are thought to be precursors for many chronic diseases like atherosclerosis and diabetes. I also knew that the skills that I would learn this semester would be vital to my educational development. As a freshman, I worked as a research assistant in a Bioengineering lab that was focused on the neuroscience aspect of the field and I felt like I was lacking the lab bench experience that comes to mind when one hears the word “research.” That’s why when I got the opportunity to work in a much more hard-sciences based laboratory, I jumped at the opportunity.

As a student hoping to enter medical school after graduating, this semester has really helped me hone the skills that I hope to use as a researcher later on in my career. I see this semester as the foundation upon which I can build on during my time as a medical student and beyond. Much of my weekly routine is spent doing the same things I’ll hopefully be doing a lot of in a few years. I do literature searches, write and edit study protocols, and carry out the experiment of the day either with or without the help of my mentor, Dr. Hoemann, depending on the difficulty of the test at hand.

One thing I discovered this term is that research is much more of a give and take process than I originally thought. I can’t even count the number of times I took one step forward and then two steps backward. Sure, it’s frustrating but it’s what makes the process that much more rewardable when things go right.

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

URSP Student James Erickson Examines How to Study Ebola VP40 Exosomes Part II

This past summer, I work on an OSCAR program ion Ebola VP40 and exosome research in Dr. Fatah Kashanchi’s molecular virology lab.  During this internship, I was mentored a bright Ph.D. candidate, Michelle Pleet, who taught me over the past 2 and half years various lab protocols and skills that I use to do my project today. In the fall of 2017, we had received plasmids from a collaborator who is well-established in the field. These plasmids are designed to produce a mutated form of the Ebola matrix protein (VP40), and we planned to test them in a series of experiments targeted towards determining the confirmations of VP40 necessary to enter into exosomes and have physiological effects in recipient cells. These experiments, however, were put on the back-burner until after our most recent Ebola VP40 and exosome review paper, on which I am a co-author, that is currently in progess. After learning about the URSP/OSCAR program, it became clear that the next step to advance me further in my scientific career was to head the start of the research into the Ebola VP40 mutant plasmids, and how the mutations in the VP40’s structure would affect the protein’s ability to become packaged into exosomes and affect recipient cells. As our recent Ebola paper was submitted earlier this year, we started the new research project by transfecting 293T cells with the 5 mutant VP40-producing plasmids. This was followed by Western blotting for intracellular VP40 protein levels to confirm that the cells took up the plasmids. The exosomes from these cells were next characterized by ZetaView analysis, which measures the size and concentration of extracellular vesicles by using the principles of Brownian motion. We also checked for the presence and levels of VP40 protein in the exosomes produced from the transfected cells, as well as other confirmatory exosomal markers by doing special Western blots using nanoparticles in order to concentrate the extracellular material. Ultimately, this led to 1- 2 Western blots being performed weekly to probe for and confirm the presence and levels of various host cell and mutant VP40 proteins. As at this point, I am fairly used to rigorous wet lab bench work, the experiments themselves were not difficult or particularly complicated to perform. Instead, the most eye-opening thing I learned this term was how much work is actually done to publish a paper, as all the time that wasn’t going to my OSCAR was spent on responding to the comments of reviewers from our recently submitted paper. This involved intensely researching the pre-existing literature as well as designing and running intricate control experiments to answer the reviewers’ pressing questions and concerns. All in all, I have learned a great deal this term, not only in terms of the biology we have explored in my project, but also in terms of gaining an overall better understanding of what it takes to become a successful independent researcher and scientific writer.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

URSP Student Maria Cowen Investigates the Role of Antiretroviral Treated Extracellular Vesicles on Recipient Cells

Hello! My name is Maria Cowen and I currently work in the laboratory molecular virology lab on the Prince William County Mason campus. My Fall 2018 OSCAR project is an extension of my Summer 2018 OSCAR project. This research involves examining exosomes from virally infected cells impact different types of cells in the CNS and researching potential cellular pathways to prevent damage normally made from a cell. A little bit about my project: exosomes are small nanosized extracellular vesicles (EVs) that are normally made from a cell. They carry all sorts of cargo, such as RNA, DNA and proteins, to other recipient cells. There’s an awareness of HIV associated neurocognitive disorders (HAND) in virally infected patients and many believe that exosomes have an important impact in these disorders. In my previous summer OSCAR, we discovered that there were significant changes in brain cells when treated with EVs released from infected cells treated with antiretrovirals.  The reason why I am doing this project is to potentially identify a way to mitigate cellular death.

What got me interested in this project was my role in the lab and research that I was working on previously, which involves HIV, antiretroviral drugs and exosomes. There’s a need for knowledge in the growing field of extracellular vesicles and that thirst for knowledge kept me excited to learn more things. I see this project as a fundamental part of my life; I have learned several new research techniques and practiced other skills, like submitting a grant, time management, presenting at scientific research conferences, writing manuscripts and working with fellow lab mates, all of which is an integral part of scientific research. What I have been doing in the lab involves growing millions of virally infected cells, monitoring them in the microscope, several of calculations, treating the cells with drugs, isolating and treating the exosomes onto CNS cells, doing assays for characterization and functional analysis, and impacts on the recipient cells. One thing I discovered was this semester was the importance of time management, especially when working with biological materials and the importance of the depth of research concepts.

Monday, January 14, 2019

URSP Student Sheryne Zeitoun Conducts Vector-borne Disease Surveillance, Control, and Pathogen Discovery

My name is Sheryne Zeitoun, I am a senior majoring in Community Health, and my long-term goal is to pursue a career in medicine. The journey into the enthralling, never-ending world of scientific research and medicine has been a passion and desire of mine for the majority of my life. My time as an undergraduate researcher has been one of the most fulfilling experiences of my academic career, as it has allowed me to apply theoretical knowledge from the classroom to the real world. My URSP project is part of my mentor's (Dr. von Fricken) ongoing research on vector-borne disease surveillance, control, and pathogen discovery, spanning from Virginia, to Mongolia, to Kenya. 

Ticksare notorious vectors of human and animal pathogens. These arthropods play an important role in the spillover of emerging zoonotic diseases, which represent a growing global threat as humans increase contact with wildlife and the diseases they carry. Consistentfield research and surveillance on tick-borne diseases is particularly important to monitor changes in tick populations that may be caused by globalization, changing climates, and increased international/domestic travel. Our project looks to explore and tackle these problems. 

This past summer, we conducted tick-borne disease surveillance in Virginia, and this prepared me for active field surveillance of ticks in Kenya. After we collected the ticks by dragging and/or flagging a cotton cloth on a dowel, samples were separated by their respective species, sampling location, and tick life stage. Representative ticks were then preserved in ethanol. Once we finish conducting an analysis of tick data, the relative threat of different bacterial illnesses can be estimated based on prevalence of each tick species. We expect our results to show us what infectious agents the collected ticks carry, which geographical areas had the highest density of infected ticks, and which species were most likely to be infected with which bacteria. 

Throughout my time spent doing research with Dr. von Fricken, I have truly engaged with the intricacies of the research process. Having the opportunity to work both locally and directly in an international setting improved my cultural competency, expanded my research confidence, and reiterated the importance of understanding the drivers behind emerging diseases.

Friday, January 11, 2019

URSP Student Thy Vo Studies the Effect of Irradiation and Autophagy Drugs in HIV-1 Treatment

My interest in HIV research started in the Summer of 2017 when I did the Aspiring Scientists Summer Internship Program (ASSIP) at Dr. Fatah Kashanchi’s lab. I studied the autophagy pathway in HIV-infected cells over the summer. Autophagy is the pathway regulating the degradation of unnecessary cellular components. After the summer, Dr. Kashanchi was kind enough to let me stay in his lab to do further research. The more I learn about these viruses, the more fascinating they are to me. I feel very fortunate to gain the research experience like this as an undergrad since this would be very helpful for my future education in graduate school. My OSCAR project is about the use of irradiation (IR) in HIV treatment. 
I go to the lab 3 – 4 days to work on my Fall OSCAR project. The first thing I do when I get into the lab is to look at my calendar and see what I need to do that day, and the last thing before I leave the lab is to write down a to-do list for my next day. Typically, there is always at least one day in a week that I would do data analysis and subculture my cells. On the other days, I either work on the experiment or discuss the next steps of the experiment with my mentor.
One thing I discovered this semester is that even though the experiment may not go as planned sometimes, there is always a new thing for us to learn no matter how the experiment turns out. At first, we planned to study only the effect of IR in the vesicles released by HIV-infected cells. However, as the experiment went on, we think that we can have better effect by combining Rapamycin (an autophagy inducer) with IR. We also use another autophagy inducer called INK128, but we put a lot more hope into Rapamycin since it is a more popular drug and has been used for a much long time than INK128. However, the result is not what we expected, and INK128 turns out to be a better candidate than Rapamycin. We were quite disappointed at first since we put our focus on Rapamycin. However, we were delighted later to find that our data consistently support INK128 throughout the experiment. 

Thursday, January 10, 2019

URSP Student Jalah Townsend Researches the Experience of Black Students at George Mason

This semester, I have had the opportunity to complete a research project on the experience of Black students at George Mason. This project specifically explores the impact that identity centered organizations have on the transition of first year Black students in order to find effective ways to support these students. I became interested in this topic after realizing that the term “diverse” now appears in every university’s mission statement. However, as universities are transitioning to include minority populations, employees are often unprepared to support these students, especially within a student’s transition from high school into college. As a result, many colleges and universities rely on the support given to students through their peers through identity centered organizations that pertain to a student’s race or ethnicity such as organizations like the Black Student Alliance, the Caribbean Student Association and the African Student Association. Through these organizations, many first-year students have the opportunity to find a community that gives them a positive experience which often contributes to their successful transition into college.
I am grateful for this opportunity as it will help me prepare for the future. I am hoping to receive my master’s degree in Higher Education where I will essentially study the experiences of students at various universities in America. In order to complete research such as this, having the experience in completing multiple interviews each week, like I have this semester is invaluable. This semester, I have learned so much- what works and what doesn’t and from this experience, I have truly learned that my passion lies in student affairs.

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

URSP Student Holly To Researches How Water Quality is Affected by Land Use

During the winter break of 2017, I assisted my professor on learning about a new equipment known as the ion chromatogram in the lab. I learned how to use the ion chromatograph as well as create necessary components for the data acquisition process. I would investigate the ion levels in local stream water. From there, my interest in finding out how water quality is affected by land use developed. Participating in this project has been allowed me to see the overall impact of land use across different seasons on the quality of water. 
When I think about my long-term goals, I believe it will play a large role in the direction I am aiming towards. I hope to one day attend medical school and laboratory experience is a necessity. This project has not only given me an opportunity to research something I enjoy but also provide me with laboratory experience that I may share when I apply to medical school. 
On a weekly basis, I run lab tests that include finding pH, turbidity, conductivity, alkalinity, and total suspended mass. In addition, I would run each sample collected- which is collected biweekly- through the ion chromatogram. 
What I discovered this term is that there are always set backs with researching. Through my research process, I have experienced multiple set backs that keep me incapable of moving ahead until the problem is resolved. While I realize that these issues do hold me from finishing my research in a timely manner, it allows me to learn that research doesn’t follow a timely schedule and that patients areimportant in the research process. 

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

URSP Student Karen Therrien Studies the NMDA Receptor

Throughout the semester I am studying a protein called the NMDA receptor, assessing how it operates in mouse spinal cord neurons. This receptor can be found throughout the brain and spinal cord in mammals and is crucial to information storage within the nervous system. The NMDA receptor is perhaps best known as a facilitator of memory formation and learning, two processes that require the connections between individual neurons to be both strengthened and weakened throughout development. 

However, I became interested in this topic due a lesser-known aspect of NMDA receptor function. My cousin has a rare genetic condition called the Phelan-McDermid Syndrome, which generally results in speech delay, intellectual disability, and varied physical complications such as epilepsy. Recent work with mouse models of this condition has shown a direct link between the Phelan-McDermid Syndrome and reduced NMDA receptor activity. This inspired me to search for a way to study this receptor in isolation, using the techniques I had learned from my work in Dr. Peixoto’s Neural Engineering Lab. 

At the beginning of the semester I had the opportunity to perform an animal surgery for the first time, removing the spinal cords from tiny, embryonic mice. I then spent several weeks monitoring the spinal cord neurons I had removed and recording neural firing from individual cultures. Although many of the neurons began to die midway through the semester, preventing me from performing most of the experiments I had originally planned, I adapted to the setback and have shifted gears. Currently I’m working on using targeted fluorescent stains to tag protein markers within spinal cord and prefrontal cortex mouse neurons, in order to better visualize the cells. This experience overall has strengthened my drive to continue research while at Mason, possibly leading to graduate work in neuroscience and genetics.     

Monday, January 7, 2019

URSP Student Jeremy Schimmel Researches Kinesiophobia and its Connections to Chronic Ankle Instability

My project is focused on researching kinesiophobia and if there is connection to chronic ankle instability (CAI). The main impetus for this project was when I was working with one athlete who had a history of lateral ankle sprains (LAS). This athlete was experiencing pain despite the ankle being structurally sound. I applied so that I could research this gap in literature to help athletes in similar situations.

In relation to my long-term goals this project helps me see firsthand what goes in to creating original research. This project is helping me to strengthen my writing for graduate school. It also provides a great stepping stone for future research as my desired focus for graduate school is sports psychology. This project has been great in helping me realize what I want to continue to study in the future.

Since the study is a survey, my tasks can vary week by week. They have ranged from handing out and posting flyers for prospective participants to assisting in abstract writing for conferences. It has been an amazing experience where truly no one week is the same. 

I discovered that research is not always going to be easy. There will be bumps in the road and you cannot get distracted by them. Often you must keep moving forward in order to achieve the overall goal. Failure can happen and should not be a moment of despair. Every mistake is an oppurtunity to learn and become better from it. Oscar has taught me that there is always something you can learn.