Oops! I realized that I did not click “publish” and this saved as a draft.
Here’s Friday’s post:
It feels weird that today’s the last day, because I’ve actually settled in and become part of a research study. While I hate not finishing what I’ve started, it will be nice going back to not having to endure traffic and paying for parking (I know I mention that a lot, but $12 a day definitely adds up and cuts into my burrito funding).
I have learned a lot here at the Brain Mapping Center– my slight “fear” of intricate software has become more of an intrigue, my neuroscience terminology has expanded, I have seen a transparent mouse brain and spinal chord, and I know what it’s like to analyze data for a research study. However, I’ve decided that the cubicle life is not for me. While I’m a decently patient person, the level of patience that 5 (more if I were to actually be employed here) hours of sitting and constantly moving figures around on a computer screen demands far more than what I can offer. Nonetheless, I am extremely grateful to have had the experience of working with peoples’ brains and to have this connection for the future.
The past two days have entailed more work on the study, and of course, goodbyes. I gave Marissa and Dr. Shattuck whimsical thank you notes along with a Starbucks card (they are always drinking coffee, so we bonded immediately). AND they gave me a thank you card and some bruin gear as a gift, which I showed utmost gratitude for.
The really awesome thing was that they invited me back in the future if I needed undergraduate/graduate work, so it’s incredible knowing I have these connections for the future.
My day commenced with a mile-long sprint (okay, probably more of a hastened jog) in the rain. I was carrying very important notes, so it was crucial that I kept them as dry as possible. While the mile-long walk from the parking structure to my cubicle has been a tolerable nuisance during my project, today’s circumstances brought a whole new version of the obstacle. Thus, the notes are okay, and my hair has dried.
Today was slow because I finished the work I had to do in preparation for our meeting with Dr. Iacaboni at 2:00. Instead, I re-read my neuroscience notes and continued researching so that I could put my time to good use. In addition, I worked on my senior project presentation because lord knows that’ll be here in a blink of an eye.
The meeting with Dr. Iacaboni and a recent PHD recipient went well, but theres still a lot of work for Marissa, Dr. Shattuck, and I to do. Obviously, not much can be done on my end considering I have two days left here, but these next two days will be definitely be busy. I’m just glad I know the software well enough so that “crunch time” isn’t as scary of a concept. Looking forward to contributing more to this study and then being done!
I’ve really been enjoying my time here in the brain imaging lab. While it can be monotonous at times, it’s important to remind myself of the fact that I’m toying with other peoples’ brains on the computer and THAT is awesome.
Today Marissa invited me to get lunch with her, to which I gladly accepted. She gave me really great advice for college, ranging from the academic side of things, the social side, and even the sleeping side.
One thing that I hadn’t heard before was what she told me about alcohol tolerance (it was a scientific discussion, I promise)– that, in a new environment, our biological alcohol tolerance goes down (she had a professor that worked on studies with this, so it is pretty legitimate). So, if someone always goes with their friends to a certain bar, their repeated familiarity with that location causes their tolerance to build (to an extent). If that same person goes with those friends somewhere for spring break, their biological tolerance goes down, which can explain a lot of the stories we hear about unfortunate happenings during the famous “college spring break.” I found this interesting because it shows the influence that psychology has on the body as a whole, and it could help people be more mindful.
After lunch, Marissa had me revise my work to see if even more improvements could be made. While the task itself wasn’t difficult, I started to go crazy because I couldn’t find improvements. I found a few though, which made me feel better since my task had been at least somewhat fulfilled. I guess we’ll have to see if Dr. Iacoboni approves!
Upon my arrival, Dr. Shattuck asked me, “Hey, wanna see a clear mouse brain?”
And so we went.
He introduced me to a very nice man named Allan, who was holding two tubes. He had me look inside, where I saw this tiny clear blob that still had some structure to it. I didn’t think that this was THE mouse brain, until he said “that’s a mouse brain.” He explained the process, heavy with lingo I did not understand. Basically, the mouse brain soaked in a variety of substances, which eventually left the brain in the clear state of which I saw. An analogy would be like soaking a dirty plate– the gunk will come off eventually, it just takes awhile.
The second tube had the same mouse’s spinal chord. From these clear figures, researchers can look at it with microscopes or other instruments and make conclusions about multiple sclerosis in mice. Allan said that, from this study, it can be inferred that those with multiple sclerosis have increased grey matter at a younger age, and therefore their brains “shrink” faster. Interesting stuff!
Dr. Iacoboni then came and reviewed the work Marissa and I had done this week on his study. At first, I was scared because he seemed to be confused; but he then realized that he read some numbers wrong and it was all good. I was super happy after we met with him, because he was extremely pleased from what we had done. For me, it was especially rewarding because my blurry understanding of the software had become clear enough that I was able to efficiently gain positive results for what could be a ground-breaking study. Woo! So, that was my day.
Also, when people ask me about where I’m going to college, most have no idea what/where Gonzaga is. I find this funny because Gonzaga beat UCLA pretty far into March Madness, and a lot of bruins were upset about it. Glad to be avoiding tension! 🙂
Yesterday: May 28, 2015
Today I attended a lecture led by Dr. Giacomo Rizzolatti, a warm, Einstein-looking (seriously, look him up) Italian man who discovered mirror neurons. The mirror mechanism “transforms sensory information into a motor format,” which helps us “understand each other from the inside.” For example, if we see someone stub their toe and make a face of agony, we understand due to our recognition of the pain it generates, as well as their facial expression and its associative emotion. I would dig more into the science of this, but it is dense and so I digress.
I was amused by the eclectic audience in the lecture hall– esteemed neurologists discussing advanced neuroscientific concepts, students who did not want to be there, students who did want to be there, doctors, nurses, and donors (who appeared much fancier than the rest of us).
Right after the lecutre, it was time to get EXTREMELY busy with work. Dr. Iacoboni, who is leading the study that I am working on, is checking our progress every week. Marissa and I had a set of brains that we needed to work on, but Marissa is involved in 4 other labs so the set just ended up being mine to work on. I probably burned about 2000 calories from aggressive mouse-clicking and sphere-dragging, and my eyes got super tired from staring so intensely at the computer screen for so long. I also forgot to eat lunch– which, for me, is deathly. I finished though, which felt really good considering the software was completely foreign to me just days ago!
Everything is just as I remember it here: the bleach-y aroma of the Neuroscience Research Building lobby, the hum of the air vents, colleagues chatting about brains, and the woman who walks in every morning at approximately 10:12 making the whole lab smell like Chanel No. 5.
I believe Julia mentioned this in one of her posts, but a noteworthy difference between high school and “the real world” is the amount of instruction given. While Vistamar encourages independence, there is far less direction given here than in the classroom setting (which, isn’t too surprising, but it still makes for a change in work climate). Every morning, I come in, adjust the feng shui of my cubicle, and continue my work from the previous day. Dr. Shattuck usually arrives shortly after, tells me to continue what I’m doing, and then goes into his office. While I am allowed to ask questions if needed, he is a busy guy and therefore it is much more imperative that I figure things out on my own than rely on my interrogative instinct.
HOWEVER I feel as though I had a break-through today using the BrainSuite software, which I’m super stoked about. I’ve been locating, isolating, and improving the display of tractographic connections in the brain, all with Dr. Shattuck and Marissa’s approval. Tractography is the 3D visualization of neural tracts in the brain, which look like this:
Super pretty, right? I find it amazing that this type of activity goes on in all of our brains on a daily basis!
Alas, my goal of actually achieving something with the software has been met. Also, shout-out to Jackson for volunteering to drop me off at work today, which voided the $12 daily parking fee and made the commute less stressful. Yay!
I write to you as I munch on my salad, where each bite seemingly echoes throughout the lab. As much as I enjoy the quiet for focus’ sake, the hum of the air vents and the unsynchronized typing and clicking warp me into a sleepy state from the monotony. Also, I feel like a nuisance to everyone around me with my loud chewing. Oh well.
Yesterday/today: I have began to do what Marissa has been doing with the brain imaging data. Again, I can’t really say what the process is because the neuroscience researchers at UCLA seem to be the only ones using this nuanced method, so revealing it would be bad.
I went and got lunch at Cafe Synapse (ha! Get it? A synapse is a tiny gap where neurotransmitters help nerve impulses cross), where a lot of people in the neuroscience department come to eat. I noticed a bunch of people looking at me with strange faces– at first I thought “hm, they must somehow know that my parents went to USC” and laughed to myself but it wasn’t until later that I realized I had gotten a bug bite on my face that caused my cheek to swell. Fun stuff.
While this week has been enriching, I’m looking forward to a more diversified schedule next week. To my understanding, I will be attending a conference at USC, attending a lecture led by THE man who discovered Mirror Neurons, and attending an open house at the Brain Mapping Center in celebration for their new equipment.
We’re done with our first week guys, woo! Have a wonderful long weekend!
Before I begin my spiels for my second and third day, I feel that it is necessary to share some exciting news: I MIGHT be able to get my brain mapped at some point and work with it on the brain analysis software, BrainSuite! They just need to find someone to map it, because apparently the process takes about 4 hours.
Day 2: This day felt longer because I did not consume as much coffee as I would have liked. I began to use command codes (which, to me, look like this: aasdlgkajs;.bmp3492a) that are related to BrainSuite and BrainSuite Diffusion Pipeline (BDP). BDP fixes distortion in MRIs so that the researchers can get the most accurate reading. Dr. Shattuck spoke to me for about an hour about all kinds of neuroscience-y stuff, which was a lot to absorb. This lab is filled with either seniors or graduate students, so there’s a sizable amount of “lingo” to catch-up on. The second he left to get lunch, I wrote down as much as I could remember on a Google Doc so that I could refer to it later and read it when things are slower.
Day 3: This day was more exciting: I got to observe Marissa (the senior who is becoming my primary mentor at this point) work with connections in the brain that are correlated with a study on empathy. I can’t really say much about this study for confidentiality reasons, but it is very interesting! Marissa and I then took some time to eat our lunch outside and get to know each other, which I enjoyed. We returned to the lab for two meetings: the first with Dr. Marco Iacoboni to review the progress Marissa had made on his study, and the second being a standard lab meeting. The lab meeting was in a conference room with COMFY chairs and a huge screen, where we debriefed. I may or may not begin to work on a study that examines the brains of those with cerebral palsy, or a study that examines epilepsy in developing nations (tapeworms are the number one cause of epilepsy in developing nations because they can sometimes get into the brain and cause cysts, leading to seizures).
My goals of becoming more familiar with the software have been decently met– it is always challenging and complex, but I think I’ll get the hang of it. Here’s what the software looks like! (From brainsuite.org)