Friday, May 10, 2013

URSP Student Elizabeth Benkart Looks at Medium Spiny Neuron Dendrite Morphology in the Striatum of Rat Brains

My URSP project for the spring 2013 semester is looking at medium spiny neuron (MSN) dendrite morphology in the striatum of rat brains.  The striatum is a very important part of the brain and is heavily involved in voluntary motor function, addiction, habit formation, and pathology in this structure leads to Parkinson’s disease. I am comparing branching patterns or the arborization of MSNs between groups of rats who have received various levels of training in a maze task with an appetitive reward. Interestingly enough there are different classes of neurons based on arborization identifiable in the striatum from birth and these classes are maintained through adulthood. Things like the MSNs spine density and branch length also change as the rat develops adult-like motor skills. However, it is unknown whether similar changes in neurons are seen in adulthood when learning a new motor task.  This question is partially what sparked my interest in this project.

I am working on this project under my mentor Dr. Blackwell who is the head of the Computational and Experimental Neuroplasticity lab (CEN lab) at the Krasnow Institute. I also owe much of my interest in this subject to Dr. Blackwell and the graduate students that work under her, PhD candidates Rebekah Coleman and Sarah, both of whom have spent much of their time the past two years teaching me about various topics in Neuroscience.  In the long-run I feel like I have learned so many valuable skills essential to working in any research environment, such as; applying the scientific process effectively to thoughts or research ideas, various lab skills (Histology processes, electrophysiology, neuron reconstructing using Neurolucida-7 and Bright field microscopy etc.), and critically thinking through all of the “road bumps” that naturally come with any project. In this regard I feel that my experience with CEN lab has prepared me for graduate school, whether it is applying to a Physician Assistant Master’s program or a PhD in Neuroscience. 

On a weekly basis I am normally working in CEN lab doing various histology steps in order to allow the slices of brain tissue to be cover slipped which provides longevity for reconstructing. I use Neurolucida version 7 to reconstruct neurons directly from a bright field microscope in the basement of the Krasnow Institute. After reconstructing the neuron (typically a two hour process) it can be analyzed using Neuroexplorer software where common analytical tools, such as the Scholl analysis, are used. Our analysis for this project is still under way; so far the results look promising. An interesting fact that I learned this past week in direct relation to our analysis thus far was about homeostatic plasticity; it explains that when a neuron has more synaptic input (i.e. more spines) it balances this by having a decreased intrinsic excitability and therefore does not react as strongly to stimulus; which results in a balancing act whereby the neurons overall response to a stimulus is the same. To learn more about homeostatic plasticity in the striatum please refer to the URL provided below:

Thank You to Dr. Blackwell, Rebekah Coleman, and Sarah Hawes for their continuing support and encouragement on this project.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

URSP Student Saima Ahmad Researches Methodologies and Challenges Among Muslim Academia

The idealistic side of humanity has always appealed to me, and as such religions have been a source of complete fascination to me: the universality of its goals in perfecting the self and its attempt to create and to develop a profound awareness of the ethereal. However, in the past year, my fascination with the metaphysical and philosophical began to weigh heavy upon me, as I realized that theorizing is rather useless without praxis.                                                                       

I went to Dr. Maria Dakake asking for an opportunity to assist her in her personal research and she suggested I study how Islamic institutes of higher learning apply their religious worldview in their attempt to study other religions. This project has been an opportune way to investigate my interest for the relationship between theory and praxis, which complements my intrigue in religions and higher education. It has been a crucial stepping stone in my goal to develop a scholarly career in the field of Islamic studies, as I've always been interested in reforming the way Islamic knowledge is disseminated in Muslim countries.

Each week I am in constant contact with international institutes, obtaining information and materials from them on their comparative religions courses and asking them investigative questions from my examinations. In the latest weeks, I have been analyzing my findings in light of relevant scholarly works, in order to contextualize my data and understand it within a larger framework. I meet with Dr. Dakake on a regular basis, which allows me to ask questions about my findings and hold informative and beneficial discussions with her.

While I am continuously learning throughout my research, I’ve learned significant things this week which have required me to evaluate my own personal presumptions. I’ve realized how ingrained Western assumptions are in my perspective, regardless of how I thought I was aware of this bias. Such learning is welcomed though, for that which is challenging is highly rewarding.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

URSP Student Nicole Dierkes Researches Women’s Impact on Desegregation in Fairfax County from the 1950s through the 1970s

I first became interested in my project while researching topics for my History 300 class. Throughout all of the classes that I have taken towards earning my bachelors degree, I have found that the ones that interest me the most have been about African Americans and about women. It was my quest to try to combine these two ideas into something that I could tangibly research for the semester.

At first my research was generally unsuccessful. I had found a few primary sources in the Special Collections and Archives, but none that I could relate. Finally, after months of research, I began to piece together primary documents and formulate a story. My research became centered upon the impact that women (both white and black) had on the desegregation of Fairfax County Public Schools.
I think that this research is related to my long term goals because it has taught me how to persevere when I felt that my findings were not going in the direction I wanted them too. It also taught me an appreciation of what it means to truly research and to dedicate oneself to research. My project has not been simply reading a book or articles and formatting them into a paper in my own words. I have taken primary documents, such as minutes from board meetings and memorandums, and created what I feel traces the unique story of how FCPS desegregated.
On a weekly basis, I continue to try and find primary sources that relate to what I have been researching and to sift through them and connect them to the mostly forgotten, but nonetheless influential women who helped bring an end to segregation in Fairfax. This week, I have focused on bringing a little more secondary research into my project. I have been looking at the ways other counties in Virginia are both similar to Fairfax and different. I found that Arlington was the first to desegregate and in many ways was the example which many counties, Fairfax included, chose to integrate their public schools.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

URSP Student Francis Aguisanda Studies miRNAs and their Influence on how Neurons Develop in the Drosophila Peripheral Nervous System

When I joined the Cox lab, I had the benefit of being able to select from a wide variety of potential projects to participate in. I chose to study miRNAs and their influence on how neurons develop in the Drosophila peripheral nervous system because RNA interference is such an important and “hot” area in molecular biology. miRNAs are very small RNA molecules that are able to regulate the expression of many different genes. Determining which miRNAs influence neuron development will give us very interesting insight into what genes influence how and why neurons create the structures that they do.

I am very interested in pursuing research in the future. I am still in the process of deciding whether or not to pursue a career in medicine or applied biological research. Regardless of where I go with my education, the techniques I have learned while pursuing undergraduate research have helped me immensely. I have had the benefit of learning many interesting techniques that will be great to apply to future projects.

On any given week, I am making genetic crosses between flies of different mutations to design flies that have the genetic material that I desire. I also spend time taking images of neurons via a confocal microscope, which is able to take many pictures of a single object along the Z axis and compress them. This allows us to create a comprehensive two dimensional image of a three dimensional object. I also spend time isolating neurons of interest from the fly larvae. 

One thing that I discovered this week is that when we remove certain miRNAs from the fly, it has a statistically significant effect on the expression of certain genes. This is very exciting, as it confirms that the genes that I predicted would be targets of these miRNAs are, in fact, targets.

Monday, May 6, 2013

URSP Student Refka Al-Beyati Researches Francisella

From the start of my academic career, I have been certain of my fascination with pharmaceutical research. Medically relevant subjects have certainly been introduced in my courses; however, I have always taken it upon myself to further my knowledge through my own reading and research. I have made it a priority to stay current with the advancements in my field.

Francisella is a bacteria is linked with several diseases, which can be alleviated given the adequate knowledge of its structure and function. My interest has primarily driven to a focus in a multi-disciplinary research project in chemistry and microbiology. This type of research directly relates to what I hope to convey as a pharmaceutical researcher.

My real experience as a researcher through the OSCAR program first started with an email I sent to Dr. van Hoek explaining how much I am interested in research and would like to work with her on a project that involves both microbiology and chemistry (my favorite class). I was more than happy when our project got accepted, and that I was given the chance to do research for the first time.
During the first few weeks of the semester I spent my time reading articles about Francisella and autoinducers to get a better understanding and more information about the topic. The next step was performing different experiments in lab to grow bacteria, purify the sample, and isolate autoinducer 3.

One thing I have learned lately is that research does not go as planned. However, it is always necessary to have some plan before doing an experiment. I also discovered that negative results are ok as long as I understand why I got them and how to use them to prevent more mistakes. Negative results can be used to change the original procedure and try new plans.

Friday, May 3, 2013

URSP Student Kara Curtain Researches the Eastern Worm Snake

            I study a species called the eastern worm snake.  Worm snakes are small snakes that are native to the U.S. and spend most of their time underground, eating earthworms.  I knew that I wanted to focus my research on the conservation of amphibians and reptiles, but worm snakes were not on my radar until a former professor asked if I would be interested in designing a research study about them.  I was initially clueless about the species, but after an extensive literature review I decided to study habitat selection. 

Habitat selection is the process by which an animal chooses which place to make their home.  Different habitats have varying characteristics, such as temperature, types of vegetation, soil composition and a myriad other factors.  The idea behind studying habitat selection is to build a model to determine which of these habitat characteristics matter to worm snakes.  I do this by comparing the habitat characteristics where the snakes are living to the habitat characteristics available at all sites where they could potentially live.  On the surface, this does not sound all that challenging.  The problem with worm snakes is that they are too small to implant with transmitters (the largest worm snakes are about a foot long and weigh about half an ounce) so the only way to find them is to spend a lot of time searching for them.
Worm snakes spend most of their time underground, but when they are not underground they are usually underneath or buried within rotted logs.  My typical field day involves performing time-constrained searches, which means I pick a random spot at my field site and then search for an hour in that spot, turning over every log I can.  It can become tedious since it generally takes about two hours of searching to find a snake and it is very hard work since most of the logs are bigger than I am!  When I find a snake I stop and pull out all my various bits of equipment to measure habitat characteristics.  I also find another random spot and record habitat characteristics there to compare them to where I found the snake. 
I am hoping to use this research for my thesis since I will be starting a master’s program in Conservation Science and Policy this fall.  This project is the first step in a plan I have to determine whether worm snakes have extended their range after European colonists introduced earthworms to areas that previously did not have any, thereby providing a food source for the snakes to exploit.  Since we have had such a cold spring, my field season has been delayed this year and I have yet to find any new worm snakes to add to the thirty that I found last year.  However, I do find a lot of other interesting creatures under the logs when I am searching and I was excited to find my first smooth earthsnake, another small snake that lives underground. 

Thursday, May 2, 2013

URSP Student Andrew Cedeno Investigates the Toxicity of Carbon Nanotubes on Lung Macrophages

My motivation for this project was to gain research experience in the medical field. This project to investigate the toxicity of carbon nanotubes on lung macrophages was the perfect opportunity to get hands on experience performing cell culture and assays. From the beginning my principal investigator told that this type of research is very challenging and requires many hours of commitment. In the two months that I have been working on this project I have learned skills that are reserved for pH candidates and the like. The first three weeks of the semester I was becoming familiar with the equipment and procedures until eventually now I can work without supervision. Aside from Dr. Salvador Morales, the principal investigator, I am the only other person working on this project. I have been endowed with a lot responsibility which is helping me grow as a scientist. I treat this project very professionally and I consider it as my job. In addition, I have a learn the lab more technical skills than in any lab for my science classes. The experiment has to be completed entirely by myself for the most part. I have to apply biology, chemistry, and mathematics concepts I have learned in my biomedical engineering major. I have to be on top of everything and plan out all the procedures in advance to prevent any problems. The toughest part of the project is that there is no set schedule. Each experiment is unique and can take any amount of hours. Sometimes I have to stay until late at night or come on the weekends to continue the experiment procedures. Therefore, I have to plan everything ahead of time to avoid scheduling conflicts with my classes. Nonetheless, the project is very rewarding and I learn skills that are priceless and that I cannot learn in a classroom setting.

In brief, my project consists of 4 main experiments leading to the Nitric Oxide Assay that will evaluate the levels of toxicity. First, I have to grow cells in an incubator. After at least 3-4 days, I will have enough alveoli macrophages to plate them in a 96-well plate. Twenty four hours later, I have to synthesize 7 ligands that I will use as conditions to assess the levels of toxicity associated with Surfactant Protein A and Carbon Nanotubes on the cells. Consequently, I have to add the ligands to the cells in the plate. The next day, the cells are ready to be tested in a Nitric Oxide Assay that measure the light absorbance to analyze the toxicity associated with each condition. the The entire experiment takes about a week and a half to complete. In order to affirm the results and to confirm reproducibility, I have conducted the experiment 3 times already and gotten very similar results.

Moreover, this project is preparing for medical school by becoming expose to laboratory research and being able to handle school work and a job with great results on both sides. My dream is to become a surgeon and doing the cell culture experiment, the ligand addition, and the nitric oxide assays are helping becoming very skillful with my hands. Pipetting is like an art and everyday I am becoming more competent. As a doctor I have to be as meticulous and responsible as I am with this experiment because the stakes are higher and human lives are on the line. Furthermore, the next phase of the project is to publish the results. I have started doing the a review of recent works related to my project. Getting exposed to other scientific works and helping write this paper will provide me the opportunity of being a published author and also be able to present my research my many conferences nationally and internationally.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

URSP Student Tommy Eales Researches Protein Biochemistry

I first became interested in doing research while taking a chemistry course with one of Mason’s
research faculty members. To promote an interest in scholarly activity, the professor asked the class to complete an assignment involving the proposal of an independent research project. For my project, I researched protein biochemistry, an area of personal interest. After reviewing my work, the professor suggested that I speak with Dr. Bishop- Mason’s protein biochemistry specialist. I met with Dr. Bishop shortly thereafter, and have been working with him ever since.

In many ways, my involvement in the Undergraduate Research Scholars Program represents the capstone of my undergraduate research experience at Mason. I have been working with Dr. Bishop for the majority of my undergraduate career, and strongly believe that research has added significant value to my undergraduate experience. This work has enabled me to grow as both a student and as a scientist, providing me with invaluable skills that will benefit me throughout my entire career.

In general, my project involves the use of analytical biochemistry techniques to characterize the
functional group content within hydrogel particles engineered to selectively harvest target biomolecules from complex mixtures. My long-term goal is to become a great physician. Although my research does not directly involve medicine, the skills developed through research are critical to the successful practice of medicine. I have learned how to identify problems, how to develop and execute a plan to address these problems, and how to then evaluate and interpret the results. This skill set is critical to success in every professional field. In this regard, my research has played a critical role in my preparation for a career in medicine.

My typical week consists of preparing synthetic reactions, using analytical techniques to acquire
descriptive data about the synthesis products, and interpreting the collected data. Each phase of research has its high and low points. For example, setting up and conducting a synthesis reaction can be fun, but working up a synthesis reaction can be miserable. In the same way, interpreting the results of a chemical analysis can be intellectually stimulating and challenging, while the process of applying the analytical techniques to a sample can often be repetitive and time consuming.

One thing I discovered this week is that the analytical technique I have been developing can be
applied in a much more broad manner than I previously expected. This is very good news, as it means that the work will have a greater impact. Overall, this was a very good week for my research!