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.