Pharmacy/Toxicology Pre-Grad Intern Amarachi Amuneke-Nze
My name is Amarachi Amuneke-Nze and I am a 4th year Biology/Pre-Pharmacy major from Mansfield, Texas. This is my first semester with Intellectual Entrepreneurship and I have treasured every second of it. I did my internship in the College of Pharmacy's Division of Pharmacology/Toxicology. Christine Duvauchelle Ph.D is the principal investigator and her graduate student and research assistants Esther Maier and Leah McAleer served as my mentors. My background and initial interest in pharmacy started when I was 16 years old. I have spent over 4 years of my high school and undergraduate career pursuing pharmacy school and all it has to offer. I shadowed a pharmacist in high school. I worked for 3 years as pharmacy technician. I was studying for the standardized test for pharmacy school, the Pharmacy College Admissions Test and I was actively involved in pre-profession organizations such as; the Black Health Professions Organization, Longhorn Pre-Pharmacy Association, Student National Pharmaceutical Association. All in all, one would say that I was prepared for a career in pharmacy. However, my reasons behind participating in Intellectual Entrepreneurship stem from my curiosity about doing research. The University of Texas at Austin College of Pharmacy is one of few institutions that offer dual doctoral degree programs in pharmacy. I was interested in the PharmD/PhD program. Not only would obtaining both degrees mean killing two birds with one stone, but it would also open many doors of opportunities to different aspects of pharmacy such as academia, research, and even public health. I have always seen myself thriving in a research setting but never really took the time to see if it worked for me. This program allowed me to see first-hand what the life of a pharmacy graduate student is like. At the end of this experience, I have developed an enormous amount of respect for scientists, students and professors that engage in research. Although pharmaceutical research is has many rewarding attributes, it is very tedious and requires a lot of patience. I also found that I am a people person who likes to deal with a myriad of people on a daily basis. In doing research, that maybe something you might have to sacrifice. Nonetheless, there is a great deal of dedication that comes with doing research and pursuing a graduate degree. This program and has given me more insight into graduate studies and research and helped me decide whether or not it's a path I want to follow.
Dr. Duvauchelle lab's main focus of research deals with alcohol/ substance abuse and its effect on behavior. Rats are used in this lab because their genetic make-up is surprisingly similar to humans and are apt to learning very quickly. Prior to this internship I was a voluntary undergraduate research assistant for Dr. Duvauchelle's Lab in fall of 2009. My basic duties were to analyze the ultrasonic vocalization of rat calls during experiments. Every day for roughly 2 hours a day, I would be assigned certain files to analyze on the computer. I quickly had to learn to recognize what a "call" or vocalization looked like and sounded like to accurately analyze the data. Rats make vocalizations when being stimulated or when communicating with others. This process was very tedious and required a lot of concentration and attention to detail. In order for the calls to be used in data, I was responsible for editing and removing all excess background noise. I was one of 5 undergraduate students engaged in this analysis. From there, the graduate students would formulate graphs in order to support or go against their hypothesis.
This semester, I was privileged to receive a wide range of responsibilities and skills. Because I had two mentors, they did their best to expose me to every aspect of graduate school and research. Some of it wasn't as glamorous as I expected but showed me research is a progressive process that hopefully ends with ground-breaking discoveries. I was allowed participate in weekly seminars to take part in what other graduate students were doing in regards to their programs and found that they all were pursuing areas of pharmacology or toxicology that truly inspired them. They ask the questions that need to be asked and converse with other great minds to reach a conclusion. To tell the truth, I felt extremely intimidated sitting there but it helped me see how important and essential it is to have the mindset of a scientist. It is a skill that has to be developed over time with must patience.
When you are engaged in substance abuse research, you must learn how to handle the subjects that you are testing. I have never had a pet animal, so dealing with animals was definitely scary. I remember the first day I held the then tiny creature. They were always moving around, curious to see what the world had to offer. It was very easy to bond. Handling the rats is necessary so that are used to the human touch. After about 2 weeks of handling, each rat was placed in conditioning chambers for 10 minutes and taught to lever press. Every time they pressed the level, a sound would be produced and a white like would blink. During this time the rats weren't being fed so administering sugar pellets as served as a reinforcement to promote learning. If you're hungry, you have to work for the food. This was most memorable experience I had. I was absolutely thrilled to see them learn so much I decided to come in on my own time. As days progressed, I was able to see the rapid progression in the rats' learning capabilities. Some rats picked it up faster or slower than others. Every day I had the responsibility of setting up the chambers, timers, and sugar pellets. I also had to record the number of lever presses in my notebook to track their progress. Before the /experimental trails were run, the rats had to meet a weight requirement of 300 grams. After all the rats were conditioned, they began feeding on a regular schedule. This required them to be weighed daily in order to administer the appropriate dietary regimen. Since rats do not voluntarily self-administer drugs, a catheter must be inserted. I had the privilege of watching numerous surgeries where these catheters were constructed. Much care is taken to make sure the animals are comfortable during the surgery. They are put under the anesthetic isofluorine throughout the surgery.
When experiments commenced, I first learned how to compound two solutions; Heparin and Timentin. Heparin is a well-known anticoagulant used to prevent blood from clotting and forming occlusions. Timentin is an antibiotic used to reduce infection. As a pharmacy technician, I was already familiar with these medications but making sure the ratio and dosage administered to the rats was nerve-racking. Like humans rats are very sensitive to medication the dosages of various medications. Filters were used to remove any impurities from the solution and the solutions had to be changed every 2 weeks. I also learned how to properly use a syringe needle; making sure there was no air in the need to prevent the presence of an embolism in the brain that could result in death. After every experiment also known as "running the rats" their catheters must be flushed with Heparin/Saline solution. This sounds a lot easier that it actually is, and I found that out quickly. Because of the unique structure of the cap (visible tube where drug is administered), catheter must be fitted so allow for quick and easy application. The process of flushing rats serves to keep the cap clear of an occlusions or excess drug. The cleanliness of the environment is pivotal to the outcome of experiments. It was my responsibility to clean out all the experimental chambers, remove the fluid or solid waste, and wash any beakers, tools, or containers used in surgery. My lab had very stringent methods to wash the tools. First, the tools were placed in a soap and water solution for twenty minutes. Then, they were place in an acidic solution consisting of water and a nitrogenous derivative. After that, the tools were rinsed in de-ionized water three times and set to dry.
In conclusion, the Intellectual Entrepreneurship program really helped me understand the rigors and responsibilities of research and graduate school. It gave me a good idea of what would be expected of me if I were to participate in the PharmD/PhD program. Through this program I was able to understand the ultrasonic vocalizations I analyzed last semester. One of the most rewarding aspects of the program was being able to develop relationships with my mentors and principal investigator. Each of them has such distinct stories as to why they chose research and what it means to them; one can't help but be inspired to follow in their footsteps. With the interview session assignment I was able to ask questions that gave me insight into who they are as individuals, what makes them tick, and how they applied that to graduate school and their current area of research.