Chemical Engineering Pre Grad Intern Jeff Coursen
An education from the University of Texas at Austin is extremely valuable. It can provide a confused youth direction in professional life and the knowledge to pursue that direction. For me, being a part of the intellectual entrepreneurship enhanced both of these aspects of my education. I gained two very important things from the experience. First, I learned what a career in research consists of. This helped me to explore options for my professional life. Going into the program I was sure I was going to become a physician that did strictly clinical work, but now I would like to combine research. Second, I learned some interesting things about neurobiology. This gives me background knowledge if I want to pursue research in this area in the future.
The main focus of my internship was research. I am interested in research because I am interested in science. I enjoy learning how things work. Research allows me to understand the things around me and in doing so push forward the knowledge of humanity. This is especially exciting for me, because I am a firm believer in the potential of human knowledge. The possibilities are endless. New discoveries could help people all over the world. Neurobiology is a special interest of mine. To me, it is the most interesting scientific subject. It is what defines humanity. Thoughts, feelings, and actions are all derived from the nervous system. That being said, I do my research in nervous tissue engineering.
I am lucky enough to have the opportunity to work in Dr. Christine Schmidt's tissue engineering lab. Our lab does some exciting things. We work with both natural compounds and electrically conducting polymers and apply them in different ways. The most exciting application is repairing damage to the nervous system. This research has the potential to return function and feeling to patients who do not currently have it. This semester, I worked with a graduate student named Hieu Nguyen. A Biomedical Engineer graduate student usually works on three research projects throughout their PhD. The first project Hieu is focusing on is the electrical stimulation of nerve cells in an electrically conductive polymer conduit filled with a hydrogel. The second project Hieu is focusing on is the ion distribution in the gel after stimulation. The final project Hieu is working on, the project that I worked on this semester and will continue to work on, is the stimulation of nerve cells with magnetic fields. The goal of our work is to repair damaged peripheral nerves. We aim to stimulate the nerves so that they have enhanced and directed growth. If we are successful, we could guide damaged nerves to reconnect.
The process of carrying out a research project is long and often frustrating. However, it can be very rewarding and enjoyable. I started my project by reading literature on the subject. People all over the country are working on similar things as me. I read the literature to understand what has been successful and what has not been successful. The next step was to decide what my project would be. I needed to do something that was novel and would help the scientific community. There were several ways to make my project novel. The cell type, the strength and type of magnetic field, and substrate could all be changed. I chose to stimulate three different cell types using a Helmholtz coil with an alternating current that produced a 7.5 mT magnetic field at 50 Hz. I used this strength and type of magnetic field because it was what was available in our lab and was comparable to what was successful in other labs. I chose to use rat dorsal root ganglion cells, Schwann cells, and astrocyte cells. I chose rat dorsal root ganglion cells because they are very similar to our own dorsal root ganglion cells that control the peripheral nervous system. I chose to use Schwann cells because they precede neurite outgrowth. I chose to use astrocyte cells because they provide nutrients for neurite outgrowth. The latter two cell types can give information about the mechanism by which the dorsal root ganglion neurite outgrowth occurs. The substrate I chose was matrigel. I chose this because it is a gel that mimics the extracellular matrix in humans. It mainly consists of water but contains things such as laminin and collagen. The first experiment I ran was magnetic stimulation of dorsal root ganglion cells. I had to harvest the dorsal root ganglion cells from rat pups. This involves ordering a pregnant mother rat, waiting for her to give birth, and then doing surgery on the rat pups. The rat pups are sedated with an anesthetic, isoflurane, and are then sacrificed. We then use surgical instruments to remove the dorsal root ganglion cells from the spine. This is a very delicate and often frustrating procedure. Once the cells are harvested, they must survive for one day before the experiment. The next day they can be plated onto the substrate. For my experiment, I put eight cells down a line of matrigel along the center of a petri dish. I did this for three dishes.
All three of the dishes received media with nutrients and a nerve growth factor. Two of the dishes were stimulated with the magnetic field for two hours. The third served as a control. After the experiment was over, the cells were fixed and immune-stained for fluorescent imaging. The images were the raw data. From there, I measured neurite outgrowth and compared length and directionality for the experimental cells as compared to the control cells. I am currently analyzing the data. I have found that the neurite outgrowth was increased upon stimulation. This is exciting because it could be used to non-invasively repair damaged nerves. I still need to analyze the directionality of the outgrowth. The second experiment I ran was the magnetic stimulation of the Schwann cells and astrocytes. I did not have to harvest these two cell types like the dorsal root ganglion cells. My fellow students in the lab had already done this in the past and cryogenically frozen them. I just needed to thaw the cells and allow them to survive one day before the experiment. I then put them in twelve matrigel drops down the middle of a petri dish. I did this for three petri dishes for each respective cell type. Two were experimental dishes and one was a control. The experimental dishes were stimulated with a magnetic field for two hours. These cell types did not need to be stained to be imaged. They are visible under light microscopy. I just needed to fix them and image them. I am currently in the process of imaging. I will continue to image and then go on to analyze the data. I hope to see some kind of cell migration of orientation that explains the enhanced neurite outgrowth and directionality.
Overall, I have learned a lot about neurobiology and hopefully I have made a new discovery that will help the scientific community. Doing research on a topic forces you to truly understand it. You cannot just regurgitate answers back to a professor. You are the first one to do the things you are doing. You are creating new knowledge and you must have a strong base. I was forced to learn about different neural cell types, eIectricity and magnetism, cell culture, and many other things. I have learned that magnetic fields can enhance neurite outgrowth. This is exciting because it may lead to a non-invasive method for repair in patients. From here, I need to continue to analyze my data. Also, many more experiments need to be done to confirm the data found. If I end up with solid data that I feel confident in, I will attempt to get it published. This will be a learning experience. There is a specific format that is expected in the scientific community that I am excited to learn.
Although the main focus of my internship was doing research, I learned many valuable things about research as a potential career. There were three things in the class that facilitated this: observing graduate students and professors every day, interviewing a graduate student, and interviewing a professor.
Being in the lab every day helped me to see what the life of a graduate student and professor is really like. I got to see the typical hours, work load, and environment of people in the lab. These are all appealing aspects of research as a career in my mind. A researcher gets to set their own schedule for the most part. They can do their research whenever they want so long as it gets done. For example, my graduate student works out in the middle of his work day every day. This would be very nice because I like working independently. I feel I have the discipline to be able to do this. In addition to the nice schedule, the environment in the lab is enjoyable. I am sure this depends on the principle investigator, but it is wonderful in my lab. Everyone is friendly and jokes around. Students work together to tackle problems. It is a very positive atmosphere and I could see myself happy in it.
In addition to being in the lab every day, interviews with my graduate student and professor gave me a further look into research as a career. It was nice to be able to ask people who have lived and experienced being a researcher. I was able to ask questions about the lifestyle, the challenges, the rewards, balancing work and life, and other topics. I gained a lot from these interviews. Both my graduate student and my professor confirmed my belief that the lifestyle is nice. They said they enjoy being able to make their own schedule and do things on their own time. They also both gave me insight on the struggles and rewards of being a researcher. For my graduate student, the struggles come when a bright idea doesn't end up working out in the lab. Some things just don't work and it can be frustrating. This is something to think about before going into the field. Not everything is going to change the world. Some things might not even change the world at all. However, he told me that the rewards do come. Sometimes you do discover something that helps people.
That is extremely appealing to me. My professor gave me insight into the rewards and struggles of a career at the professorship level. The rewards are the same as a graduate student. She enjoys helping people with the research she does. The struggles however, are slightly different. She has to deal with getting funding for her lab. This can be a hassle and is also something to think about before going into the field. Also, the academic field is extremely competitive. It may not even be possible to gain a position. However, I don't think this will hold me back. I believe you have to do what you enjoy no matter what. She shares this belief and assured me that things will work out if you do what you enjoy. My graduate student and professor gave me valuable insight on the balance of work and home life as well. It seems to be very manageable. My graduate student is still able to spend time with friends and enjoy the city of Austin. My professor has kids at home and is able to spend time with them. This is appealing because I hope to have a family some day as well. It is nice to know that being a researcher would not get in the way of this.
Overall, participating in the intellectual entrepreneurship class was very valuable to my education. It helped me learn about neurobiology, physics, cell culture, and many other things. It inspired me to truly understand science. It forced me to do research that could help people someday, even if it is not directly from my experiments but from contributing to the scientific community. It has caused me to truly consider continuing research in the future, possibly as a career. I am very thankful that I participated in this program.