Learning in the Lab
When I was just starting college, my grandmother was diagnosed with Parkinsons disease, says Jennifer Gatchel, an M.D.-Ph.D. student in Huda Zoghbis lab. It took a while to get a diagnosis. Finally a good neurologist gave her the proper meds. Her condition improved, but the disease was not defeated.
The experience fueled Gatchels interest in medicineand in diseases that eat away at the nervous systemand led her to Huda Zoghbis lab, where she works on a neurodegenerative disorder called spinocerebellar ataxia type 7 (SCA7). Her studies, she hopes, will lead her to the mechanisms that underlie various neurodegenerative diseases. Zoghbis lab, she feels, is a good place to do that. There, researchers combine powerful genetics with cutting-edge cellular and molecular biologyor cells and gels, as Gatchel puts it. As part of her Ph.D. project, Gatchel is testing drugs to see if they alleviate disease symptoms in a mouse model of SCA7. Someday these compounds could provide therapy for patients, she says. Thats really exciting to me.
Gatchel completed a dual major in biology and liberal arts as an undergraduate and spent quite a bit of time in the laboratory before pursuing medical school. I really enjoyed it. I really liked bench work, she says. And the experience, she soon discovered, was very different from taking classes in medical school. Med school is very structured, she says. Here, your time is unstructured, but you have to get results. Both programs are challenging, says Gatchel, but I especially enjoy the creativity and independence you have in grad school.
Juan Young, a postdoctoral fellow in the Zoghbi lab, agrees. I studied for one year in medical school. But I got bored, he says. So he transferred to graduate school. Then I started learning things. In medical school you memorize a lot of things. In graduate school, you learn. You develop a deep understanding of things. You acquire knowledge that will lead to things that will be helpful for other people, for mankind.
You contribute to the knowledge you read about in books, Gatchel adds. In medical school you learn what is, she says. In graduate school, youre responsible for shaping what is.
That process of exploration, of adding to our scientific knowledge, says Gatchel, is an engaging game of logic and problem solving. You look at a person with a diseaseor a mouse designed to mimic that disease. And you think, What could be the cause? she says. You formulate ideas, perform experiments, get results, and gain an understanding of the biology. It can be very satisfying.
When it works, that is. You can put in a lot of time on something, really try your hardest, and the experiment just doesnt work. That can be tough, she says. But in the end, Gatchel says, its worth it. Each experiment is like a work of art.
The best part about science is planning experiments and then analyzing the results, says Young. Experimental work is just moving liquids from one place to another, he says. But designing experiments is different. Thats fun. Also, using your brain to integrate things, to see if you can interpret your results. Thats fun, too.
The problem with lab work, says Young, is that its a little bit consuming. It often requires a lot of hours. Most people in Zoghbis lab come in to work on weekends. On a Sunday at 3:00 p.m., the lab looks exactly the same as it does on Monday morning at 11:00, says Young. You dont notice a difference.
Another problem is that the rewards can be a long time in coming. You have an idea, design the experiment, optimize your method, and then repeat it 200 times. That takes a year, says Young. And at the end of the year, you might have negative results. That doesnt make me happy. Im a little bit impatient.
In the meantime, Ive had seven new ideas, says Young, who works on mice with Rett syndrome. He is trying to determine whether restoring the activity of the defective Rett geneeither before or after the disease symptoms set inwill prevent or cure the disorder in these mice.
Young completed his Ph.D. in neuroscience in Argentina. He then came to the United States in part, he says, because science is better appreciated here. In Argentina, scientists salaries are very low because we dont produce anything that people can see or touch, he says. In fact, Young thinks that researchers should be paid at least as much as professional athletes. Were having fun. Theyre having fun, he says. But our fun will help people. Ultimately, Young plans to return to South America, where he hopes to tackle problems of local importance. The intellectual skills involved in addressing regional issuesfor example, the effects of altitude on the nervous systemare the same ones researchers use to address broader problems, such as neurological disorders, he says. Its just that the questions are different in scope.
Until then, Young plans to enjoy his time in Texas, playing tennis and soccer and doing things with his family, such as camping and visiting the zoo. Although he is dedicated to his science, Young is also a big believer in the importance of leisure time. You need time to relax so your brain can work properly, he says. If youre too much into something, you cant see the big picture. And the big picture, as far as Young is concerned, is learning how the nervous system worksand how it is compromised by disease. Most of the unique things we have as humans are related to the nervous system, says Young. To understand the nervous system is to understand human nature.
Photos courtesy of the Zoghbi Laboratory