Gene Researcher at the Taubert Lab: Day 1

13 03 2012

Today was my first day at the Taubert lab in the Centre for Molecular Medicine and Therapeutics.

In the morning, I met Dr. Stefan Taubert and he told me about his lab and the research done there. Dr. Taubert and his team studies how the human body regulates undesirable contaminations such as toxins and needed dietary mechanisms like lipids. Lipids can be detrimental as too much of it may lead to diseases, but lipids are also essential for energy upkeep, cellular structure and other biological progressions in our body. Troubles in lipid biology uptake can result in obesity, diabetes and heart disease. These diseases affect many people around the world. In the Taubert lab, the researchers investigate nutritional biology by studying a transparent worm called Caenorhabditis elegans. These worms metabolise lipids and remove hazardous poisons using biological mechanisms that human processes use. Therefore, scientists can use the C. elegans as a model to study the processes in humans. Dr. Taubert explained to me that the biology of the worms may be exciting, but the primary goal is to understand the biological aspects of human diseases.

I then met Donha Park, Ph.D who is a research associate in the Taubert Lab. He explained to me more about the research that happens in the lab and the basics of genetics and molecular biology. He told me about PCR (Polymerase chain reaction), a crucial scientific technique used to amplify a single piece of DNA across numerous orders of scale, creating thousands to millions of copies of a specific DNA sequence. Then, I did some hands- on work. But first, I had to learn how to use a pipette. The pipettes that scientists use at the lab are high- tech! The equipment is very precise and everything is sterile. I learned how to do the first part of PCR. The method mainly focuses on thermal cycling including cycles of repeated heating and cooling of the reaction of DNA melting and the reaction of enzymes of the DNA.

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Before I knew it, it was already 5:30 pm and I had not even finished going through the PCR process. I finally understand why it takes scientists many years before they discover something significant that has not been found before. I am amazed by how long it takes me to go through the PCR process, but also by how much PCR can do! Without PCR, scientists would not be able to understand genetics and DNA.

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– Alice Yip

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Time Management, Resume Writing and Schmoozing: 3 skills of a Professional

11 03 2012

It is currently 11:14 pm. At 10:51 exactly I sat at my computer, opened Microsoft Word and said that I will begin writing as soon as I “quickly” check my Tumblr. The quick check ended up taking 10 minutes, followed by another 13 minutes of Facebook/Twitter. I thought this was quite ironic, as it is exactly what we were taught NOT TO DO during our last Future Science Leaders session on Time Management. Jo-Ann, a manager at Science World had given us a package on how to properly manage time along with what is considered a “time waster”. Social media was #1, and my 23 minutes of time spent on it, was definitely not productive.

I can guarantee that most teenagers and many adults fall into the traps of not managing time properly. Unfortunately having the right skills is the difference between successful and unsuccessful (or overly stressed) people. Thankfully we were given the opportunity to learn how to be more successful with managing our time. Here are some key points to remember:

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2012 AJAS/ AAAS Conference : My experience

20 02 2012

When I was first invited to attend the annual American Junior Academy of Sciences conference, I was extremely eager to improve my project and present it to other exceptional students from all over North America. As a few months passed by, and no improvements were made,  we still created a poster and a presentation. There were a ton of things we could have changed and a ton that we did not remember, but it was too late. We prepared ourselves to face humiliation in the eyes of 100 science nerds.

Day 1:

Wednesday after school I drove to the Westin Bayshore Hotel (realizing that driving in Downtown is a horribly stressful) and went up to my hotel room. I was warmly greeted by my project partner and a girl who came from Oregon. She was very friendly and walked me to where we had to sign in for the conference. As I was singing in, the volunteer said that apparently somebody had already signed off on my t-shirt. She looked at me as if I was an impostor, but had to let it go, since there was nothing much that could be done. That was a great welcome indeed. That night we had a welcome dinner that consisted of many delicious snacks and a fondue fountain. It was entertaining to observe everyone freaking out about the fondue running out, but I soon realized that they were right – all the strawberries had been devoured. When dinner was over my fellow FSL students and I had to endure a talk from one of the organizers. Apparently she had heard about new students in assigned rooms, so with a fake smile, she gently threatened us. Though we were mad at first, it all worked out. The welcoming speech was pretty boring, but following it was a magic show. The young magician/hypnotist  had some pretty mind-blowing illusions. Though we all know it’s not real magic, it was still pretty entertaining. After the show my new friend and roommate went to talk to him about hypnotism (which later resulted in a few death glares from his parents, who turned out to be the organizers of the event).

Day 2:

I woke up at 5 am and went to work out in the gym. This was totally crazy, because I’m definitely not the type to wake up early and exercise. Afterwards we were provided a bus to wherever our tours were. I had chosen the UBC tours, so we arrived at the Life Sciences institute. There we were provided a delicious breakfast (from which we Vancouverites took a few extra muffins for later) and a warming introduction by the Dean of Science, whom I had previously met at a Science Fair. He gave us a rather reassuring speech about how there is a 1 in a million chance of an earthquake happening in the next five hours, and we were sent off to our tours. My first tour was at the Brain Research Center, which has inspired me and showed me what truly interests me in science. We were given a few presentation on what sort of research goes on there and the ones that struck out were the following. First, they are figuring out a way to stop strokes from doing too much damage before the ambulance arrives. Second, they have built a machine that uses a magnet to stimulate various brain regions to perform different functions. The example that was given is that they can determine the brain areas associated with love, and then use the machine to stimulate those areas in a person and make them fall in love. A more realistic use is, if for example someone is homophobic, the machine can inhibit the brain areas active when experiencing the feeling, results in a more accepting person. Though there are ethical issues with such a machine, I believe if used wisely, it can be great. During this tour I also talked with a professor who allows students to come do research for him in the summer, so I am looking forward to contacting him for an opportunity. After our first tour we had lunch with some scientists, but by the time our table was up, all the good food was gone (which upset me). Nonetheless I talked to some UBC staff involved with admissions and realized that have a pretty good chance of getting in. My next tour was to the Chemistry department. It was pretty boring, except for the liquid nitrogen ice cream. That was good. Later in the day we were required to attend the President’s address for AAAS. Dr. Nina Fedoroff gave a 1.5 hour speech on her life story and research, which was pretty dull to listen too. Though her research is definitely interesting, the way she explained it was overly complicated and confusing. Our mentor/chaperone/coolest person ever later explained epigenetics in 3 minutes and it made much more sense. The dinner following the address was very disorganized, but we did hear a speech by our own Governor General. Following arrival at the hotel we participated in a very fun game of Liar’s dice, where I got very hyper and won one of the games.

Day 3:

Our morning started out with the Breakfast with Scientists. This was held at the Pan Pacific, and we were allowed to choose which table to sit at. My friends and I sat at the table with Professor Gregory Weiss and with Honourable Lillian Eva (Quan) Dyck, a senator and a Dr. They were both very nice and interested in our research. They talked about the hardships of science and what research is like and made an interesting point about how they prefer cultural diversity in science, because it provides different point of view on one problem. After the breakfast we proceeded to set up our posters in the exhibit hall. Right away Natasha and I found a few typos on our poster and had a good laugh (though I freaked out at first). The session itself was rewarding. Surprisingly a few people were really interested in our research, and so we had some pretty good conversations. I learned that when it comes to presenting, simplicity is best. Some of the other AJAS students had conducted really important research and had presented some amazing results. Others weren’t so great, but in general we were surrounded by a group of scientists with great potential. After a few hours we inconspicuously decided to walk around the exhibit hall. I tried doing a tumor removal surgery on a new apparatus designed for med students. It was very stressful and I definitely did not perform high class surgery, but after all my dream is to be a doctor/researcher not a surgeon. Afterwards all the FSL students decided to miss the plenary lecture and we headed back to the hotel. It was pouring rain outside, and of course I did not bring my umbrella. At first I shared an umbrella but then I just decided I would walk without one. It was the first time I was soaked by the rain, but I have to admit it was pretty amazing. The feeling of the rain washing all your troubles away was enchanting. Dinner was very good that night and was followed by a very intense game of catch phrase. Though I was used as an example to describe a very interesting word, it was a good laugh. The game continued on into the night, but I felt very tired and went back to my room, to curl up in a warm blanket and listen to some soothing music.

Day 4:

The day began with me attending a few lectures. 2 of them were horrific and I left within 10 minutes. 2 other ones were OK, but nothing special. It was now time for our Oral Presentations. They were much less stressful than I expected. It was a round table discussion with three other people about our research. The group I was in was very nice and I learned a lot about what you should and shouldn’t do when conducting an experiment. Next up was a Plenary Panel. The speakers that were presenting were James Hansen, Olivia Judson, Hans Rosling and Frank Sesno. All very famous people for the science community, they were discussing the importance of communication in science. Their panel was both hilarious and informative, and demonstrated the importance of communicating your ideas in a way, that the general public understands. Hans Rosling (also my new idol) did a very intriguing presentation on how the Earth’s population will maintain itself in the years to come, using toilet paper for explanation. The man is pretty much ingenious. The other speakers were also good (except for when Olivia said that social media is noise) and gave a whole new perspective to science. Next up we were supposed to go to a Banquet at the Aquarium, but instead went to a Tweet-up/ dinner. The dinner was delicious (and paid for, which made it even better) and we had the chance to meet some interesting people. I met a PhD student from UBC, who was very nice and who gave some advice and what to do to get to Med School. We then began walking towards our hotel. On our way we took a little detour through a mini park, which was fun, though it was freezing cold. The AJAS Dance that was planned for that night was not at all what I expected. We dance for about 30 mins, but there were not nearly enough people to have a lot of fun. We went back our room, gossiped and listened to some music, then went to sleep.

All in all the convention had been an amazing experience. I am very glad that we were given the opportunity to attend such an event and to network with such innovative and intelligent personalities. I also think that us FSL students have bonded over the past few days and I hope that bond lasts for a long a time. I do not think I want to attend the Conference next year in Boston, but I am definitely looking forward to starting some research and beginning a great carer in science.

AJAS Delegates




An Amazing Trip to the Particle Physics Lab at SFU

14 02 2012

The Future Science Leaders group had gone on an amazing journey to visit the Particle Physics Department at Simon Fraser University (SFU) on February 7, 2012. We learned about how the experimental particle physics has played a leading role in both DZero and ATLAS. Dugan O’Neil is the founding spokesman of the Canadian DZero collaboration and Mike Vetterli is the computing coordinator for ATLAS- Canada. Professor Vetterli is also a significant investigator of WestGrid, a network of high- performance computing facilities in Western Canada and the project leader for the ATLAS Tier- 1 data analysis center at TRIUMF which is Canada’s national laboratory for particle and nuclear physics.

During the presentation, aside from describing and explaining about the ATLAS experiment in CERN, the DZero and CDF at Fermilab, and the HEP theory, the professors also presented their current and possible thesis topics. Some experiments include a top- quark polarisation at the LHC, using decision trees to improve tau efficiency, the effects of pile- up on ATLAS calorimetry, searching for supersymmetry in inclusive channels, and many others!

After the presentation, we went into a computer lab and were introduced to HYPATIA (Hybrid Pupil’s Analysis Tool for Interactions in Atlas). The HYPATIA project enabled us to study the fundamental particles of matter and their interactions through the inspection of the graphic visualization of the products of particle collisions. It was my first time using this program and I was fascinated by how I could study traces of the particles in different parts of the ATLAS detectors. Then, I could look at reconstructed particle tracks and their properties and analyze them.

Not only, did we hear an amazing lecture by the Particle Physics Department at SFU, but we also had a fantastic hands- on experiment!





Speed vs. Strength

4 02 2012

Have you ever wondered why you were last around the race track? Or maybe why you could easily beat your best friend in a race, when both of you trained the same ways, and had a similar physique? Josh Baxter, a graduate student from the Department of Kinesiology at Penn State University has found an explanation. Mammals known for speed have a noticeable difference in the structure of their feet, such as the Cheetah, and Greyhound, from slower mammals such as Badgers, and Racoons. The difference is a lengthening of the front part of the foot (fore foot), and a shortening of the Achilles’ Tendon area (back foot).

MRIs of sprinters and non-sprinters have led to the discovery that there are similar differences between the feet of different people, making sprinting a trait passed down from ancestors. The lengthening of the fore foot is beneficial, because this increases the time that the foot is in contact with the ground. When running, you can only move forward by putting force into the ground, so the longer you can push, the faster your potential acceleration and speed.

The other difference is in the Achilles’ Tendon, and how close the calf muscle is to it. Sprinters tend to have a very short distance; this is because muscles work most efficiently when they are stationary, and not contracting, for example, holding a medicine ball is not nearly as tiresome as throwing it. The combination of more ground time and more efficient and powerful pressure to the ground makes for a very strong sprinter.

Now you have an excuse to not be the fastest in your PE class, or the highest jumper, as all of this is intertwined.





From exageration to epiphany

1 02 2012

A few weeks ago during dinner my mom was telling me a story about our neighbour and very good family friend. Forgetting for a brief period of time that my mother tends to exaggerate stories, I found myself being dumbfounded by what she told. Read the rest of this entry »





Psychedelic chemical subdues brain activity

24 01 2012

Magic mushrooms’ active ingredient constrains control centres.

Psilocybin, a compound found in magic mushrooms has long been valued for its ability to induce mystical experiences and potential to cure psychiatric conditions. The drug is known to activate serotonin receptors, but how this influences its effect is not known. Recently, David Nutt, a neuropsychopharmacologist at Imperial College London, and his colleagues, discovered that the hallucinogenic chemicals found in magic mushrooms do not have the potential to cure psychiatric conditions, but instead, they may induce widespread diseases in the brain.

David Nutt and his colleagues used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to monitor the changes in brain activity during the transition from normal consciousness to the psychedelic state prompted by psciloybin. The researchers conducted a research with 30 participants who were all experienced users of hallucinogenic drugs. Throughout the experiment, the participants’ brains were scanned twice: once after the participants had been given a salt- water placebo and once after the injection of a moderate doe of psilocybin. Nutt says, “Psychedelics are thought of as ‘mind-expanding’ drugs, so it has commonly been assumed that they work by increasing brain activity. Surprisingly, we found that psilocybin actually caused activity to decrease in areas that have the densest connections with other areas.”

Most decreases were observed in the medial prefrontal cortex and the anterior and posterior cingulate cortices (ACC and PCC, respectively). The scans also showed a reduction in functional connectivity between the mPFC and PCC, so their normally synchronous activity was de- synchronized. In addition, the intensity of the drug’s effects, as reported by the participants, led to decreased ACC and mPFC activity levels. The mPFC, PCC and thalamus are ‘connector hubs’ that have a pivotal role in coordinating the flow of information through the brain and researchers state that this accounts for the effects of hallucinogens which are responsible for a state of  “unconstrained recognition”.

Nutt and his colleagues propose their results could explain the therapeutic effects of psilocybin. Depression involved hyperactivity in the mPFC which leads to a pessimistic outlook and pathological brooding characteristic of the condition. Thus, mPFC deactivation could ease those symptoms. The researchers also noticed reduced blood flow to the hypothalamus and suggested that this illuminates that psychedelics ease symptoms of cluster headaches which is related to increased hypothalamic activity.

However, Nutt and his colleagues’ findings conflict with other studies that have been done.

“We have completed a number of similar studies and we always saw an activation of these same areas,” says Franz Vollenweider at the University of Zurich in Switzerland. “We gave the drug orally and waited an hour, but they administered it intravenously just before the scans, so one explanation is that the effects were not that strong.”

And according to Keith Laws, a neuropsychologist at the University of Hertfordshire, UK, the results could be explained in another way. “Deactivation of the mPFC and PCC are linked to anxiety and anticipation of pleasant and unpleasant experiences,” he states. “This is a stressful situation, even for experienced drug users, and I suspect that they measured something to do with anxiety.”