What was the focus of the research? Who was your research mentor? What were you doing?
My research project this summer was entitled, "The Role of Microglia in the Locus Coeruleus (LC) in the Cardiovascular and Behavioral Sensitivity to Stress." In layman's terms, I was analyzing the cardiovascular data (heart rate, BP, Mean Arterial Pressure, etc) of rats subjected to a stress paradigm after some of them were injected with a drug which is toxic to microglia in the brain. These were compared to control rats which did NOT see the stress paradigm in order to determine the effects of depleting the number of microglia in the brain (namely the LC) on the cardiovascular response to stressful situations. I worked under my PI, Dr. Susan K. Wood, as well as with several graduate students and one other undergraduate student in the lab. My roles were to use specified computer programs to analyze ECG traces and cardiovascular data to observe changes in stress response.
What was a highpoint of your experience? What was most challenging?
The defining moment for me was observing how easily I fit into the lab setting. Lots of people told me I was too young for research and that graduate students found undergrads annoying, so I was a bit nervous going in, especially since I knew NOTHING about the Locus Coeruleus or about Cardiovascular Stress Response in rats. However, within three days, I had made friends with everyone in the lab, got a handle on my duties, and began to learn the computer software that I would continue to use for the entire summer. This being said, the most challenging part of the summer was definitely the computer software. There were countless buttons that could do any of a large number of things to a data set the size of Mount Everest, and then just when you think you have it figured out, you often have to go back to the data (if it's abnormal) and try to clean it up by adjusting the parameters by which the ECG is measured. It took a few days of getting used to, but now I feel very comfortable with the program and I'm glad I learned how to use it.
Did this experience increase your interest in research?
Going into the summer, I knew that I wanted to do research, but this was mainly because it was something that I HAD to do to get into medical school. After these last 3 months, I not only came to appreciate research for what it is (an inquisition of knowledge) instead of what it can get me, but I have also realized that I really really, really connected to this lab. I love the people, the flow of work, the type of information I'm learning, and even the rats. I definitely plan to continue this research throughout the rest of my UG experience.
Would you recommend this experience to other first-year students?
I am very, painstakingly aware of the fact that not many first-years do research. This was told to me, shown to me, and made very obvious in the months leading up to the beginning of my research. I have always prided myself on my ability to pave a new path for myself, especially after being the first one in my family to go out-of-state for college. If you are an UG student with the same determined demeanor, then I would absolutely recommend this experience to you in all of its glory. It has helped me mature educationally, mentally, and professionally. It has given me several valuable networks that can help me in the future, and it has gotten me accustomed to research much earlier than the average premed student. This being said, there definitely are challenges. The information is very dense and you must be able to catch on quickly to brand new techniques as well as take responsibility for any mistakes you make. You also must be comfortable sharing your findings in front of a classroom of colleagues or professors. This being said, lots of these things come with experience, and you WILL learn on the job. Therefore, if you are a dedicated, autonomous first-year UG student interested in research, I 100% urge you to get out there and do it. You won't regret it.
Do you have future plans in this line of research?
I plan on continuing research in this lab for the rest of my UG experience. In the coming months and years, I am hoping to gain clearance to work with the animals directly, assisting in the stress paradigm, injections, and other acute procedures, and maybe even going on to help with surgery in the future. I am excited to see where this experience takes me, and I am hoping to do my Senior Thesis on this line of research in a few short years.
Did your experience help you to clarify your future career and professional goals?
Going into the experience, I was pretty dead-set on Neurosurgery (with Cardiovascular/Thoracic Surgery as a [not so close] second choice). Working with the cardio data for the past few months has given me a new appreciation for the heart and for what it does for the body, as well as for all of the important things that can go wrong with the heart (tachycardia, arrhythmia, bradycardia, etc). At this point, I would say Cardio and Neuro are officially tied with respect to what I want to pursue. My interests in research have definitely been heightened, so that is another possibility for my post-graduate plans. I can't wait to see where my future leads and how this research plays into whatever I choose to do with my life.