Of Mouse Models and Men

Two weeks ago, about a dozen of us sat at the long wooden table in the Dunning conference room of our Neuroscience department what what is known as “Scientific Communication”. The 0.5 credit seminar is required for neuro majors who want to do research for credit, and it bookends the semester with an entry session and an exit session. In the session, we go around the table and talk about what lab we’re working in, what the lab focuses on, what we specifically want to investigate, and some background on that field. The session, our undergraduate director Dr. Gorman says, came out of a need to be able to communicate the research that we’re doing in our labs with people who may not be in the field and may not have the deep experience in our research interests as we do. And so we spend the session explain our work and answering questions, and will ultimately do the same thing at the end of the semester, this time talking about what we have done over the semester, and possibly what new directions we may have staked out for the coming semesters.

But while it was useful to take a moment to think about my research and share it with other neuro majors, I think it would be cool to share here as well, because I haven’t talked about it in a while.

I work in the Song Lab at the Institute of Cell Engineering down at the med campus. The lab focuses on adult neurogenesis. Basically, our nervous system develops when we are babies and then is set in stone. For the most part. There is a tiny pocket of cells in a structure of the brain called the hippocampus – which we know is critical for learning and memory – that continue to divide and generate new neurons. Stem cells. Our lab focuses on these cells in order to better understand molecular mechanisms of mammalian learning. It’s really, really cool stuff.

my lab on the 7th floor of our research building
my lab on the 7th floor of our research building

As an undergraduate, I work closely with my post doc (postdoctorate fellow) named Daniel, who has ended becoming a close friend since we’ve been working together since I was a freshman. On a usual lab day, I deal with brain sections. Sections are slices of mouse brain tissue which we use to study the hippocampus. We use stains to look at different kinds of cells, especially to see whether or not we can pinpoint stem cell in the tissue slices to learn more about what they end up giving rise to. Sometimes, this means cutting the sections myself. Using a cryostat machine, I take the tiny mouse brain, mount it on a freezing medium, screw it in place, and then, slice by slice, fill slides up with sections that are around 40 microns thick. Other times, my work is more computational. I’ve been slowly picking up MATLAB, and I help Daniel better understand the ways a stem cell’s progeny (the neurons it becomes) disperse in the hippocampus in 3 dimensions through spatial analysis that I’m still trying to understand well.

If nothing else, the lab has taught me patience. Sticking your hands in -23 degree Celsius cryostat machines for hours on end, dealing with impossibly thin slices with tiny paintbrushes can be unnerving at first. But there’s some concretely satisfying about looking down at your slides a few hours later, constantly amazing yourself that you had the patience to stick through it till the end. The lab, and research at Hopkins, has shown me an entirely different world that I now can’t imagine my life without.

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