STEP Reflection– Undergraduate Research

Over the past couple of months, I have volunteered in a research lab studying gene therapy on Charcot Marie Tooth. My role in the lab required me to take over a large array of responsibilities such as PCR, autoclaving, Image J and animal handling. The purpose of my experiment was to see if gene therapy could pose as a potential treatment for CMT, a form of muscular atrophy. Although this experiment is continuing forward, there is still much more for me to learn.

I had already worked in the Anthony Brown Research lab since the end of my freshman year. Until a few months ago, my role in the lab was still small. I did simple tasks such as genotyping and making buffer solution. I never understood how these smaller tasks held weight in the experiments until now.

Even after understanding these smaller tasks, I learned new techniques that will come in handy in the future. For one, I learned how to use the software Image J. This is used to trace the myelin thickness around an axon. In CMT, myelin is hardly present, if any at all. The application of this software finally showed me the clinical ties that I can see in my future. I also learned animal handling skills such as taking tail samples and tattooing the mice to later identify them in the experiment.

This project was transformative because I discovered laboratory work is far more complex than I initially thought. I had this idea in my mind that I would just be running DNA samples in agarose the whole time, but it was much more than that. It is a multidisciplinary task that incorporates studies from all sciences to produce accurate results. It is important to be knowledgeable of all aspects, not just one.

The people I worked with in my lab have also made this a transformative experience. They pushed me to do things that I do not want to do because I must do them in order to do the things I do want to do. An example of this was animal testing. Although I did not think I would have a hard time with it, it was a challenge I ended up having to overcome. In the end, animal testing could help research determine the mechanism to put an end to muscular atrophy and I got to be apart of it.

During the pandemic, it was difficult to come into lab which made this process particularly hard. Although this made time management difficult and I have yet to finish this experiment, it did provide me with some useful skills. Image J became particularly useful because I found a way to research remotely and still help to get definitive results.

Research showed me who I was in more ways than none. This experience ended up being transformative for me because I realized it might not be my calling. Although I enjoyed this experience, I would like to have more outside interaction in the future. My role in the lab is important; I would additionally like to see it carried over in the clinical setting. Overall, I learned many useful techniques such as animal tattooing that I would like to continue using. However, it made me question where I truly see myself in the future and I will forever appreciate that.

STEP reflection

 

  1. Please provide a brief description of your STEP Signature Project.

My STEP project consists of a research initiative that explores the connection between the vitality of retinal ganglion cells and the extent of injury sustained in traumatic brain injuries or TBIs. I was tasked with the immunohistochemistry work on a specific cell type in the retina: Intrinsically Photosensitive Retinal Ganglion Cells or ipRGCs.

  1. What about your understanding of yourself, your assumptions, or your view of the

world changed/transformed while completing your STEP Signature Project?

Before my project truly began in earnest, I had an idealistic point of view in regard to the research process and the world in general. When I previously thought about how research was conducted, I imagined a brand-new high-tech lab equipped with all white, perfectly cleaned receptacles and tools. Inside this lab there would be a scientist who would discover everything they sought to know within one or two experiments. This far from the case. Research is messy, it’s slow and sometimes tedious, but it’s also amazing at the exact same time. Through the process of participating in research, I was reminded of the reason that I fell in love with science in the first place. Everyday working in the lab, I was confronted with the reality of how little we know about the world that we live in and how much we still have to discover. And every day still I got to participate in the chipping away toward a new revelation.

  1. What events, interactions, relationships, or activities during your STEP Signature

Project led to the change/transformation that you discussed in #2, and how did those

affect you?

Overall, one of the biggest catalysts in my transformation of thought was the personal responsibility that I was tasked with throughout this process. Throughout the research process, I had a certain number of tasks that I had to complete. If I were to not complete them, no one else would and the project would suffer as a whole, not just my own personal grade or result as it is with many of my academic classes. It was through this responsibility that I was able to fully curate a level of scientific comfort on my own and truly engage in the scientific process. This enabled me to truly experience what science is at its very roots: a process of trial and error conducted to know just a little bit more about the world.

Additionally, another integral part of my development throughout this process was the scientific freedom that I was allotted by my faculty member. During my time, I was constantly left to my own devices with a task to complete that was vital to the quality, success and overall progression of the project. While initially this was daunting, my faculty member was always available to help me if I needed it and eventually, I gained a fair amount of confidence and comfort working on my own and pondering what it was exactly that I was studying, which cemented the reality and weight of my work.

Overall, I believe that this experience has been an essential part of my development as a student here at Ohio State. Through the responsibility that was bestowed upon me and the scientific freedom that I was granted, I was truly able to gain a deeper understanding of the scientific world. Additionally, I feel as though I was even able to apply many of the concepts that I have learned in the numerous lab classes that I have been enrolled in throughout my 3 years here at Ohio State.

  1. Why is this change/transformation significant or valuable for your life?

This development is very important to me both academically and personally. As of now, I intend on applying to medical school in the near future. This experience is not only very important for admission to medical school, but my success in medical school and even much later on as a medical professional. This is because it has strengthened my understanding of the scientific world and improved my comfort level with the unknown aspect of science, which are both very vital.

Astronomy Research STEP Reflection

My STEP project involved learning about quasars and working to understand a program which analyses quasars. The physical properties of quasars are not well understood, therefore my advisor and his collaborators created a program named SimBAL to estimate the physical properties of quasars. My involvement in the research is mainly in a computer science aspect. I have learned about quasars and studied the program so that we can optimize its use and cut down the time it takes to run it.

Being involved in the research project improved my programming skills greatly. I am relatively fluent in Java but this project involved programming in Python, the language which is becoming the most commonly used programming language in a variety of fields. SimBAL is a data analysis program in that it takes in data, spectra from quasars, and analyses them to produce a result, the physical parameters of the quasar. Thus, I have gained further knowledge about data analysis and how programs work to produce the desired results. Since my involvement in the project focuses on speeding up the program I have gained skills in algorithmic analysis, finding the components of a program which slow it down.

The biggest transformation came in the form of my confidence though. Just being asked to join this project increased my confidence in my astronomy and computer science skills. Then, through working on the project, I have gained confidence in my ability to explain my research, and greater confidence in my understanding of astronomy and computer science.

My advisor was the one who reached out to me about this project. He thought of me because he remembered my interest in computer science and desire to go into data analytics. Simply the fact that I was the person he thought of for this project made me more confident because it showed that I stood out to him and he remembered where my interests were. Our weekly meetings helped me feel more confident in talking about and explaining my research as we spent some time just learning about quasars so I had a strong scientific understanding of the objects we are analyzing.

I also gained confidence in asking questions between our weekly meetings and the information and tasks I was sent. Without asking questions I would have gotten stuck many times, so I had to increase my confidence in asking questions in order to complete the tasks I was given and to better understand both the program and science behind the program. Since most of my tasks involved manipulating the program to produce different plots and diagrams I developed computer science skills. Perhaps one of my proudest moments was when I was able to create a filled contour plot using some of our data, mostly because the result was a pretty graph.

Concurrently with my research this past semester, I was in a CSE class about algorithmic analysis. This class along with my research provided me with a better understanding of what makes a good program and the changes that can be made to optimize a program. In my research we looked at several aspects of SimBAL that can be changed to decrease the running time. These solutions include things from writing it in a different programming language to running it on graphical processing units instead of central processing units. These changes would change nothing about how the program works, they would just speed it up, and we thought of these changes through algorithmic analysis.

Confidence is helpful in every aspect of life. This past semester I found it easier to contact professors when I ran into issues and I have found that I do not have as much anxiety around making phone calls anymore. These skills are both communication based and communication is important in any career, so increased confidence in communication definitely gives me a boost.

My desire is to go into the field of data analytics after graduating so all the programming, data analysis, and algorithmic analysis skills I have built during this project will certainly help in a potential career in data analytics. My project is similar to what I would be doing as a data analyst, just with astronomy data.

This image shows the spectrum of a quasar along with two spectra created by SimBAL which estimate the physical properties of the quasar.

This image shows the spectrum of a quasar along with two spectra created by SimBAL which estimate the physical properties of the quasar.

This image shows a color contour plot describing properties of a quasar.

STEP Project Reflection

For the duration of the semester, I have been collaborating with the Weinberg Computational Lab to learn and conduct experiments in regard to the electrophysiology of the cardiac ventricular cell. Initially this was through studying the effects of ion concentration on the arrhythmogenicity of a guinea pig cell model; however, as the study progressed the course of the long-term project has been refined to study human ventricular cells.

This project has been undeniably insightful in the experience I garnered conducting research as part of an established biomedical engineering laboratory. For the last few months, I have gotten firsthand exposure into how research is conducted as well as a view of what it would look like to hold a position as a research conducting faculty member at a university. The last few months I have worked very diligently on my own research project; however, what I have found are several setbacks on my progress. Initially starting with a project using a guinea pig model, I spent the first couple of months learning how to setup the computational experiments as well as compute different values used to evaluate results. I was able to make some progress that resulted in verifying the model I was using as well as had the opportunity to give a research update to the lab which is typical for researchers to do when coordinating with a group. Unfortunately, shortly after this point I was given an updated objective to begin using a human ventricular model. Having the shift in my research progress was frustrating yet was insightful. Prior to beginning my project, I was familiar with research progress generally being slow. After having my project change scope and in essence having to restart was telling of the different setbacks that can be faced.

Although I faced challenges with the progress, I had some great experiences working on my project. The excitement of problem-solving some of the more complicated issues felt like very rewarding work. Furthermore, being able to connect my results with not only previously established work, but also with clinical manifestations was exhilarating in a way because it validated the time I spent on the project. Having results that connect with real world applications had given me a more concrete understanding of how basic research may be related and applied in an industrial or clinical setting. During the same time that I was working on this project, I was working on a capstone project with a clinical mentor creating an assistive device for patients on dialysis. In a meeting with this mentor, we went over the importance of dialysis as a replacement for kidney function. One example used by the mentor was that if dialysis is missed, the potassium level in the body may get too high and cause an arrhythmia in the patient. During my research, a specific result I had seen is the impact of abnormally low potassium levels on cardiac function. If K+ is too low, then the single cardiomyocyte will enter an arhythmic state; however, if it is too high, I saw no such problem – a result which was unexpected based on what the mentor had spoken to me about what was actually seen clinically. Because of this conversation, I spent time looking into previously published papers that studied both single cardiac cells and cardiac tissue. Looking at both, I was able to distinguish specific issues that arise due to cell-cell communication. If an issue arises in a 2D or 3D model, but not in a single cell model, then the issue is due to the cell communication. As a result, I found a previously published study that showed evidence of increased potassium levels as causing something known as a conduction block, a situation which was indeed due to communication problems between cells. Having made the connection, I was able to verify the results I was able to provide credible reasoning for why I did not see the issue in my single cell model that was seen clinically.

During the course of my project, I was given the opportunity to present my research to the lab group as an update to my progress. This event provided me with practice presenting research which is a typical event for researchers and academic faculty alike. I was given the opportunity to prepare my research in whatever formatting I liked and ended up speaking on the guinea pig model I had initially been working with. Although not an exciting event, the mundane part gave insight into what may be a regular event in a research environment. The ability to communicate with fellow researchers is a must for individuals in that field. Especially when presenting to professional colleagues who have a significant understanding of your research, their feedback can provide significant improvement to the research being conducted. Peers have the ability to see both flaws in current methodology and result interpretation, as well as provide suggestions for improving research and ideas for creative new approaches to solving problems and obstacles in the research process.

A significant portion of my project involved working independently. Because of this the project stressed the ability to be self-sufficient in my work – a concept that goes hand-in-hand with knowing when it is important to reach out to the graduate student I was working with, or even to my PI who is the expect on the field to answer questions. Finding the balance between solving problems on my own in order to have a better understanding and learn more and reaching out to others to answer my questions in order to save time and ensure I am doing things efficiently and correctly is a significant skill I have been able to sharpen throughout the course of this project. The relationship I have built with my project supervisor and the graduate student who I worked closely with on my project has been fundamental to my success. As I mentioned previously, learning to concisely communicate has been a significantly helpful skill that I have developed throughout the course of this project. Through communicating with my graduate mentor, I have been able to learn about forming concise emails, the extent of work I should expect to be motivating myself to complete, as well as the expectations that I would be held to by a more senior member of the research team.

These transformational experiences I have had in the last few months during my STEP project have been greatly insightful into developing my plans for the future. I went into this project hoping to gain experience on what it is like to pursue a career in academia with a heavy dedication on research. My biggest takeaway from this project has been the slow pace that research is carried out at. I saw a number of setbacks in my project specifically, and I see similar pace for my fellow researchers in the lab. This led me to takeaway that I enjoy and want to do research in the future, but I would not want that to be the core of my career. As a result, I look to turn my head toward pursuing a career in medicine – but only after continuing to grow my education as a biomedical engineer by pursuing a master’s degree here at Ohio State (currently with acceptance in the fall). Following my master’s degree, I will be applying for MD/PhD programs. Doing one of these programs will allow me to have a career in medicine, centered around patient care, while opening the door to work on research as a side project throughout my career.

 

Research Reflection

My STEP Signature Project was a research project that I lead in the lab of Dr. Long-Sheng Chang. My research focused on testing the efficacy of a drug on osteosarcoma cells. I performed various experiments, such as western blots, to determine the cells’ protein content after drug treatment.

As a pre-medical student, I had known that I enjoyed interacting with patients; however, I was unsure whether or not I would enjoy the research process as it lacked the patient interaction that I treasured. Yet, during my semester researching, I attended various conferences and heard the stories of how other researchers were making an impact on patients worldwide without actually helping them directly. The initial mindset that I had was that I would not enjoy it as there was no patient interaction. Although I did not have any patient interaction during my time researching, I did learn about the process that it takes for drugs to be approved and how there is a comprehensive approach to ensure the safety of the patients. With this, I had developed a greater appreciation for the works of researchers.

During my time researching, I had the chance to work closely with my Principal investigator, who has been researching for over 30 years. I would come in every weekday at noon and leave around 6 PM or so. On the days that I would arrive early to complete an experiment, I would see my PI already here at the lab. Likewise, on the occasion where I stay late until probably 11 PM or midnight, he is there as well. I realized that he was dedicated to fighting cancer and that he was driven to succeed. This dedication was exceptional and helped me develop a further appreciation for research as it requires a sacrifice to benefit society.

As I spent the semester researching osteosarcoma, I had the unique opportunity to lead my project with the guidance of my PI and the Ph.D. in the lab. I had always known that research was a field that required time and dedication; however, over the course of the semester, I had the chance to experience the required dedication and commitment. As I was performing treating the cells with the drug, somewhere along the way, there was an uneven division of cells that practically threw off the entire experiment. I had no idea until it was near the end of that experiment. Because of something as small as an uneven split of cells, two weeks’ worth of work had gone down the drain. Every step had to be taken with precision and care as even loading a couple of microliters more would result in a result that was not truly reflective of the experiment.

Although there was no patient interaction while researching, I had the opportunity to attend the tumor board meetings where physicians discussed their patients’ treatment courses. During this time, I had the chance to see how the research was directly impacting the patients. The analysis provided the data on what course of treatment should be pursued. Seeing the physicians consider the prior study was an eye-opening experience for me as I was able to see the connection between patient care and research, which I was not actively aware of before this experience.

This experience researching in the lab of Dr. Chang has taught me always to keep an open mind. Although on the surface it may not seem that research would have the same satisfaction of working with patients first hand, this experience has been just as rewarding knowing that I was contributing to the patient care of countless numbers of future patients. I had the chance to learn about how research helps to guide physicians’ choices to achieve the best outcome and care. The mentality will be something that I will take with me as I continue to pursue a medical degree. In the medical field, it is essential always to have an open mind when it comes to listening to the patient and creating a treatment plan. Without an open mind, patient care has been shown to decrease since every person is unique drastically 

Although there was no patient interaction while researching, I had the opportunity to attend the tumor board meetings where physicians discussed the courses of treatment for their patient. It was during this time where I had the chance to see how the research was directly impacting the patients. The research provided the data on what course of treatment should be pursued. Seeing the physicians take into account the prior research was an eye opening experience for me as I was able to see the connection between patient care and research, which was something that I was not actively aware of prior to this experience.