Neuroscience Pre-Grad Intern Sannah Khan

Sannah KhanAt the beginning of the Intellectual Entrepreneurship Program, I was expecting to see what life would be like as a pharmacy graduate student at the UT College of Pharmacy. What I experienced was much more and it was a once in a lifetime experience. My expectations for the program were to shadow some pharmacy practices, see what a graduate student life is like as compared to an undergraduate, participate in some of the research going on in the lab and get more involved in alcohol addiction research. For me, I was very excited to find out Shannon and Dr. Gonzales are doing research in alcohol addiction because my uncle was an alcohol and drug addict. After my uncle died (because of the drugs and alcohol consumption) his wife was left with his debt to pay, the mortgage and they also had 3 children; watching my aunt suffer by having to sell her jewelry, the house and watching my cousins grow up way too fast really had impact on my curiosity towards how alcohol can become so addictive and how can be it so addictive to the sense that someone can forget about their wife, children and moral responsibilities. Shannon as my mentor really inspired me to continue being up to date on alcohol addiction research.

The way Shannon was able to inspire me over the course of the fall 2011 semester was by taking to Wagner Alcohol Addiction Research meetings, letting me help with her experiments and taking me to alcohol journal clubs. The Wagner Alcohol Addiction Research meetings were interesting because in this meeting graduate students would talk about their research and how far along they have progressed over the course of the semester. While a good majority of the meetings were over my head (in the sense that I couldn't understand the terminology the graduate students were using) it still inspired me ask questions to Shannon once the meetings were over and it encouraged me to use Google even more. (I would use Google to look up certain procedures the graduate students talked about, or certain definitions that I was not clear about) The alcohol journal club meeting occurred once a month on the first Friday of every month. This was by far one of the most enjoyable researching meetings because the graduate student would talk about one particular alcohol research journal that was from a different school. This was interesting because it opened new areas of alcohol research I did not know existed. The last one I went to was about fetal alcohol syndrome, this was very interesting because I know someone who drank heavily while pregnant and I saw the end result of her baby. The interesting part of this part of the internship was that it was away from the lab. Dr. Gonzales and Shannon made sure I experienced what the full graduate school experience was like.

Since I am applying to pharmacy school this semester, Shannon was cleared by her professor to let me observe a pharmacy class. This particular class was patient assessment, this is a required class for pharmacy students who are in their second year, and the class objectives are to perform certain patient care assessment check-ups. On the day I was allowed to go, they were learning how to do a diabetes check-up. This was one the best part of the program because I was looking into the future. I was observing what I will be doing in about 2 years from now and I got the chance to talk to pharmacy students one on one. Shannon is a teaching assistant to that particular class, so she was able to explain every single thing the students were doing and what their objectives were for that day.

Since I jumped onto the lab crew towards the middle of her experiment, I wasn't able to fully understand what her overall goal is for the experiments she was running. When Shannon and I met to sign the grade contract and other protocol paper work, she explained in some sense what her goal was. From what I remember at the beginning of the semester, she is trying to see the role of beta endorphins in the mechanism at which alcohol becomes an addiction. Her research was different from other people in the lab because a good majority of the graduate students in her lab were focused on the role of dopamine and not beta endorphin. The reason behind dopamine being such a popular peptide is because it is a smaller peptide and it won't be as expensive because the equipment can be hand-made. When a person drinks alcohol, it triggers the release of dopamine and endorphin (beta endorphin for this research). The release of dopamine and beta endorphin is expressed in humans by a sense of happiness or euphoria, however our body reacts to the increase release of dopamine and eventually the level of tolerance is established. The level of tolerance is established by a person drinking excessively to the point where the initial point of euphoria doesn't satisfy him, therefore he has to keep drinking and reach a new level. My mentor, Shannon, is looking at the role of beta endorphin in the mechanism of alcohol addiction.

Since I started helping Shannon with her experimentation towards the middle, I am just now beginning to see the full set up for the experiment. For the past semester, she was prepping for the major experiment which is scheduled for next semester. This semester, she was doing mock experiments, the purpose of the mock experiments is to make sure the probes, equipment and solutions are all in check before the real experimentation starts. The coolest and by far the most memorable experience I had in the lab was performing perfusions.

Perfusion is basically killing the rat, after surgery has been done and the graduate students are ready to analyze his brain. The first step in performing a perfusion is placing the rat into a gas chamber, once the rate has lost consciousness; the rat is injected so that way the heart will slowly stop beating. To make sure the rat is fully dead, the tail will be cracked; the reason why the tail is cracked is because of the pain stimulus that is caused when the rat's tail is cracked. Once all the safety precautions have taken place, it is then time to slowly cut out of the brain by flushing out the heart with saline. Eventually, after about an hour or so the brain will be final product of the research.

After the brain has been taken out of the rat, it will be sliced. Slicing the brain was also on the most memorable experiences in the lab because I felt like a real researcher when I was doing it. The brain is sliced by a machine, while the machine is big and heavy the brain is cut by a thin razor blade and only a thin layer of the brain is sliced at a time. An interesting note, while doing this part of the experiment is noticing how small and squishy the rat brain is.

This past semester, has been one of the most memorable experiences, it has increased my passion for pharmacy, it has provided me with a way to see how alcohol can become an addiction, and it is wonderful to have a mentor who graduated from pharmacy school. I learned about life, how graduate students manage their time, I got to meet wonderful people and the lessons I learned from this program is something I know I wouldn't be able to get in a classroom.