This is the last installment of my summer experience working in a neuroscience lab at the University of New England under a Maine-INBRE (IDeA Network of Biomedical Research Excellence) Fellowship.
It’s been awhile, so here’s a brief synopsis of my experiment. I looked into how the perception of pain is handled in the brain through neurotransmitters associated with inhibition involved in the descending pain pathway. A rat model of advanced osteoarthritis in the left knee was used, and they were prescribed an exercise regimen that noticeably reduced pain and brought the animals back to their baseline thresholds much sooner. After weeks of exercise and retesting of pain thresholds, all subjects were euthanized, and their brains were given to me.
I was looking for what neurotransmitters (endogenous opioids) were involved in the upregulation of this internal pain-modulating system. My ten-week fellowship was spent sectioning the brain tissue on a cryostat, fluorescently staining tissues using immunohistochemistry, analyzing the intensity of this fluorescence, interpreting these results, quantifying the data, presenting the results, and surfing the web.
The hypothesis of my experiment was upheld: a visible and quantifiable increase in tyrosine hydroxylase (TH – a known precursor to dopamine and norepinephrine) was observed in the exercised cohorts compared to the sedentary group. What this means will need to be further explored through people that have more than ten weeks to do so. As my mentor, Dr. Tamara King said, “Science builds on science; people spend years and can conduct a hundred different experiments that all build off one initial experiment.”
After my ten weeks was up, I had to compile my data and build a poster to present at Mount Desert Island Biological Laboratory in Bar Harbor, during the INBRE/NSF Student Science Symposium. This was held in late July, and a beautiful time of year to be in Bar Harbor. Every student had to either take part in a poster presentation or a lecture-style presentation in front of a bunch of real scientists. I opted for the poster. However, it was at this event that I had my epiphany and decided on yet-another career about-face.
The guest speaker was Dr. Sidney McNairy, an aspirational scientist/politician who had a career change of his own. He started his career as a chemical engineer, and worked for some prestigious colleges and corporations, but left the field to work for the government. It was through the government he saw the avenue to impact the world, and help others like him, and myself, who came from modest beginnings. Dr. McNairy went on to work for the National Institutes of Health, and was instrumental in the INBRE program’s inception and administration.
With all of my duties mentioned, surfing the web was where much of the time was spent. Yes, some of it was experiment-specific, but most was not. In the real world of science, you often set up one experiment and let it run; depending on the experiment, this could be hours or days. Most lab workers multitask, and set up another experiment or help a lab partner. However, for the most part, there is a lot of downtime. There were a lot of hurry-up-and-wait scenarios, and I am too active for that type of situation.
Nonetheless, this fellowship did exactly what it was supposed to do, and exposed me to the real-world of science. I came back to college to position myself to make an impact on this world, and have realized that this can be done whenever you apply yourself. And it should be done in whatever field interests you the most. For me – and for Dr. Sidney McNairy – it turns out, this was not science, but politics.