Sunday, November 3, 2013

URSP Student Caroline Thomas Explores Autophagy as a Neuroprotective Mechanism for Dendritic Complexity

      Since my freshman year at George Mason, I was fixated on working in a lab and applying what I was learning in the classroom to novel approaches to uncovering unexplored biological pathways. I was fortunate enough to be accepted into the Cox Lab, which focuses on studying dendrite morphology in the model organism, Drosophila (fruit flies). This research focuses on studying gene expression and its relationship to neurological pathways. Applications of this research can be useful in studying neurological disorders such as Alzheimer’s, Down’s syndrome, and Huntington’s disease. The research conducted at the Cox Lab was extremely interesting to me not just as an aspiring scientist, but also as a sister to a brother with Down’s syndrome and autism.

      After a semester of shadowing and collaborating with graduate and postdoctoral students, I became interested in exploring the biological pathway termed autophagy. This pathway is unique because it is thought to contribute to dendritic shape and complexity at a genetic level. For my URSP project, I will be focusing on studying the expression of three different genes thought to be connecting to the autophagy pathway. I have the opportunity to uncover the relationship between these genes and autophagy, which is currently unknown. In science, I cannot think of a more exciting opportunity than the chance to uncover an unexplored scientific hypothesis.

      On a weekly basis, work in the lab can be quite monotonous. Tasks on any given week include collecting virgins flies for a cross between two genetically different fly lines, setting up crosses, imaging neurons of drosophila larvae (which may quite easily be the most frustrating lab technique of all time), working on Photoshop to quantify data, and did I mention, collecting virgin flies? This week I discovered that just because a predicted cross between two fly lines may work on paper, the survival rate of the offspring of that cross may not be viable. A lot of work in The Lab comes about from trial and error.

      One of the most challenging things I have discovered about working on a research project is how to keep your essential question in perspective when you may spend weeks working on a specific aspect of your research. As an aspiring scientist, a long-term goal of mine is to gain the skills necessary to lead and expand a scientific inquiry.