I was an undergraduate research assistant in Dr. Nelson’s lab, a lab that focuses on neuroendocrinology. The graduate student I worked with, my mentor, did research on disruption of circadian rhythms in mice.She evaluated the effects of high fat diet and light at night on the metabolism of mice and how it can lead to obesity and other medical problems, physical and psychological. Her studies also look at metabolic changes in mice pups and at what time exposure to dim light leads to either leptogenic or obesogenic factors depending on sexual maturity. All of her studies focused on observing the effects of dim light at night. Exposure to dim light at night disrupts circadian signaling to both the central and peripheral organs leading to impaired mood, cognition, metabolism, and other homeostatic properties. Dim light at night also has a diminishing effect on the clock gene and protein expression, especially the liver clock. Another study included how dim light at night in hamsters could lead to epigenetic modifications in successive generations, without necessarily causing weight gain. I helped her with behavioral tests like elevated plus, forced swim test, and tail suspension. I scored these tests to analyze depression and anxiety levels in mice. We also carried out glucose tolerance tests on mice to analyze how effective the uptake of blood glucose is. I also helped with the daily care of the animals, as in changing their cages, recording cage activity, weighing specific food, and weighing the mice on a weekly basis. I helped with tissue collection of mice; collected brown adipose tissue, heart, brain, liver, adrenal glands, and spleen. To better understand the projects my mentor was doing, I read articles and journals on the topic of circadian rhythms, epigenetics, and the suprachiasmatic nucleus.
I really enjoyed doing the research projects over the summer. Since I was taking only one class, I could focus my time on research, as compared to the school year. I not only learned about neuroendocrinology, but I was also able to observe the interactions between graduate students and the PI and lab technicians. I joined a research lab to help me decide if I wanted to go to graduate school or medical school. Through this experience, I learned to appreciate what research is and how much work goes into carrying out a proposal. However, I realized that I want to pursue being a doctor over being a researcher. There is a lot of trial and error, repeating experiments and waiting time that occurs in research. I think I prefer doing new things and interacting with patients more than I do conducting experiments. I still find research interesting in that it is the future of medical advancements. So, to be a part of figuring out what could be the causes of certain physiological problems, is a privileged experience.
I learned how to take care of animals and how important it is to adhere to every small detail of the protocol. There are so many factors, known and unknown, which affect the study. The goal is to minimize as many as possible, and have enough controls so that the results are just due to the aspects being manipulated in the study. Tissue collection was the most interesting part to me. I was keen in learning how to dissect mice and to see the differences between the mice on regular diet and high fat diet.
I would definitely like to do an honors thesis my senior year. I hope to be able to start on my own project next summer. I would probably continue one of my mentor’s projects. I’m especially interested in the sex differences that occur in the dim light at night studies. The females seem to act differently than males as they don’t gain as much weight from being exposed to light at night. It would be interesting to try to figure out what factors are behind this phenomenon. One of our studies found that the females try to make it up for eating high fat diet by being more active than the males, and this could contribute to a decreased weight gain.
I think the undergraduate research experience will be a much better learning experience once I get my own project. With my own project, I would be more committed to learning all I can about the subject and be more determined to set aside more time for research. Writing my own protocol will help me understand what goes into planning an experiment and how much background work must be done to write one. I will also learn how to schedule everything, plan a budget, keep in mind the goal of the study the whole time, and how to deal with frustrations and obstacles that come in my way during the experiment. I hope to present my findings at a research forum, and especially aim to present at the Denman. The summer has been a big step in being involved in research in college, and STEP has given me the push I needed in the right direction.