Pitt Bio Blog
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.
Biological Sciences senior
It’s not very often that we can connect our specific interests with our academic careers, especially as some science courses that you take can be highly structured and possibly not so engaging. One form of participating in a more personalized experience can take place when you choose to participate in research in a lab, while another form is by taking advantage of projects and presentations in courses that provide you with a great deal of creative freedom. Some examples of such courses include Physiology Lab (BIOSC 1255), where your lab group designs an entire research project based on any physiological question you wish to answer, and the Communicating in the Biological Sciences (BIOSC 1010) or any BIOSC writing course where you can choose any research topic that interests you in order to write a review, while also educating others about the field of science.
Being a hopeful future medical professional, I have a great interest in the way that the human body works and the process of figuring out how to develop practices in order to help return the body to health. When I was given the opportunity to pick a research topic in my Communicating in the Biological Sciences class—under the category of stem cells—I decided to go with a topic of relevance to me that I never thought to or had the capacity to explore. The disease Retinitis Pigmentosa (RP) is an inherited retinal degenerative disease that runs in my family, with many current members showing different stages of symptoms of RP. Other than hearing firsthand accounts and seeing the lifestyle of those who had the disease, I hadn’t delved much further into the cause, progression, or treatment of RP. In an effort to further educate myself and to possibly introduce this condition to many of you who may not have heard of RP (considering it is a rare disease), I pursued the topic for my class and am also relaying the information here as well.
Because RP is an inherited retinal degenerative disease, I’ll start by explaining some basic retinal anatomy. The retina is the portion on the back of the eye that is full of light-sensitive cells known as “photoreceptors” that take the visual information from the eye and initiate electrical signaling that results in the information being received by the brain. There are two main categories of photoreceptors: the rods and the cones. The cones are used for detecting color and detail, and lie more in the central portion of the retina, while the rods are sensitive to light and dark changes and lie more in the periphery of the retina. In RP, vision deteriorates due to the progressive loss of the photoreceptors, most commonly the rods, although the cones will eventually degenerate as well (Qu et al., 2017). The death of these peripheral photoreceptors leads to a decrease in peripheral vision, resulting in tunnel vision and the destruction of these light-sensing rods leads to a decrease in night vision, known as night blindness. Some early vision-reducing symptoms of RP can appear in childhood, while the more prominent tunnel vision and night blindness symptoms can appear in the early twenties and most will be declared legally blind by their forties. From there on, patients can develop full blindness.
As you can imagine, quality of life can be greatly affected in these patients that have a slow degeneration of their vision. Tunnel vision and night blindness can prove difficult to constructively do work and/or keep a job, while making the patient more dependent on others, possibly leading to depression as comorbidity factor. Many may also be constantly aware of the fact that they will become blind later on in life (Senthil et al., 2017). Unfortunately, there are currently no cures for RP, and developing a single treatment has proven difficult because there isn’t a simple inheritance pathway (RP can be inherited as autosomal dominant, autosomal recessive, or even as X-linked) and there are over 70 genes with known mutations associated with this disease (Zhang, 2016). But stem cell therapy has been a popular direction of research, with researchers looking into injecting stem cells into the host’s retinal space where they can differentiate into new photoreceptors.
Two of the common stem cell types are being researched as a treatment for RP are the retinal progenitor cells (RPC) and mesenchymal stem cells (MSC). RPCs can differentiate into various types of retinal cells, such as the photoreceptors that are needed, and there is also evidence that RPCs can support sick and dying photoreceptors. These cells are more likely to develop into photoreceptors, but they have a low rate of proliferation. MSCs are adult stem cells from the bone marrow with the capacity to develop into various types of cells. These cells are less likely to be rejected by the host’s immune system, but they are more difficult to direct into development of specific photoreceptor cells because of the lower rate of differentiation (Zhang, 2016). Previous studies with transplantations that combined stem cell types to provide treatment showed positive results in other diseases such as diabetes and heart failure, and in an effort to implement the same technique in restoring vision in retinal degeneration, combination treatment was also conducted by Qu et al (2017). Because each of these cell types had their pros and cons, this combination treatment was seen as a safe and more effective alternative to single stem cell type transplantations such as had been done previously.
Three-week-old Royal College of Surgeons rats—animal models of inherited retinal degeneration—were placed into five treatment groups: untreated, PBS (a negative control solution), just RPCs, just MSCs, and the combined RPC/MSC option—in which RPCs and MSCs were injected into their subretinal spaces. At 3, 6, 9, and 12 weeks, the eyes of the rats were examined, with the number of photoreceptors counted, and the retinal function measured in order to determine if the treatments could slow the deterioration of photoreceptors. By the end of the study, Qu et al. concluded that the combined treatment provided a better treatment option over time. Hopefully these findings can be applied to clinical trials in the future, so that patients born with inherited RP will be able to reverse the course of their disease.
Qu, L., Gao, L., Xu, H et al. (2017). Combined transplantation of human mesenchymal stem cells and human retinal progenitor cells into the subretinal space of RCS rats. Scientific Reports. 7:199
Senthil, M., Khadka, J., Pesudovs, K. (2017). Seeing through their eyes: lived experiences of people with retinitis pigmentosa. Eye. 31: 741-748
Zhang, Qingjiong. (2016). Retinitis Pigmentosa: Progress and Perspective. Asia-Pacific Journal of Ophthalmology. 5: 265-271
Senior Biological Sciences student
You may have noticed the magazine racks scattered around campus containing copies of “The Pitt Pulse” Magazine, but have you ever read one? If you haven’t, you may want to pick one up and give it a read!
What is the Pitt Pulse?
The Pitt Pulse is a creative health and science magazine that features articles written by undergraduate students at the University of Pittsburgh. The magazine aims to inform readers about current events and issues in science and medicine, but also examines these topics through the incorporation of other academic disciplines. Initially created to cater uniquely to pre-health students, the magazine has expanded its scope in the last five years to focus broadly on science and medicine that is happening here at the University and in the city of Pittsburgh, but also focuses on science and medicine in politics, the media, and across the globe. The organization’s mission encompasses the fostering of individual and professional growth by providing students with an outlet to teach others about their scientific passions and interests through their own writing, rather than simply being passive scientific learners. While the articles serve to educate and advocate, the magazine itself serves two functions: the first to inform readers of interesting and relevant topics, but the second to provide an outlet for artistic talent and a knack for graphic design. Senior athletic training student Jefferson Griscavage, current Editor-in-Chief of the magazine says, “The Pitt Pulse, with its blend of biomedical science and creative arts, has really evolved to become a unique platform on Pitt’s campus to raise awareness of research and global health issues. Much like a TED Talk, we seek to take complex ideas at the forefront of scientific progress, but present them in a way that is engaging, relevant, and inspiring to the average reader.”
The Pitt Pulse has since expanded its platform to reach audiences in several ways. “We are more than just a magazine,” Jefferson went on to comment, “we integrate print media as well as radio and video to create an organization that not only allows our members to pursue their passions on multiple stages, but to reach audiences in ways that many other student-run organizations cannot.”
What sorts of topics does a typical magazine contain?
Anything! Each edition of the Pitt Pulse is wildly different. Articles in recent publication have focused on global health and infectious disease, evolving surgical techniques, bioethics and politics surrounding medical practices, coral reefs and medical ecology, early-childhood science education, the benefits of music and medicine, and everything in between. Regardless of your interests, the Pitt Pulse includes something for virtually everyone. In addition to intriguing articles, the Pitt Pulse contains graphic designs and personalized art to accompany each written submission. In many cases, the Pitt Pulse includes hand-drawn and personally designed works of art that allows students to express their interests in science, not only through written work, but through an artistic and creative outlet. In this way, the magazine welcomes future scientists and medical professionals as well as artists and designers to fuse art and science through the incorporation of creativity on multiple platforms.
How do I get involved?
Does the Pitt Pulse sound like something of interest to you? If so, you should get in contact with us to find a department that best fits your passions. From design, to broadcasting, to writing and editing, there is always room for new members in the Pitt Pulse. Above all else, the Pitt Pulse wants to provide an outlet for students’ voices to be heard and their creativity to be recognized and appreciated. If you are interested in getting involved please contact firstname.lastname@example.org. And even if the Pitt Pulse isn’t for you, next time you are waiting for class in Langley, consider scanning our newest edition, you won’t be disappointed!
I’ve been working as an Undergraduate Researcher at the Vascular Medicine Institute at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine for three years now. During my time here, I’ve been examining the anatomic distribution and expression of matricellular proteins in the cerebral vasculature of Alzheimer’s Disease subjects. Alzheimer’s Disease is a progressive mental deterioration due to the decay and degeneration of the brain. When a patient suffers from Alzheimer’s Disease, protein deposits called amyloid plaques build up and become toxic to brain tissue. The build-up of amyloid plaques causes cerebral amyloid angiopathy, which occurs when the protein deposits form in the walls of blood vessels within the brain. These plaques interfere with vital metabolic pathways and lead to the death of neuronal tissue; if the case is severe enough, the brain shrinks in size in some areas due to the degeneration of the tissue. I have been analyzing six target genes and their role in contributing to cerebral amyloid angiopathy via immunostaining procedures and fluorescent imaging techniques. Thanks to the Vascular Medicine Institute and the University of Pittsburgh, I’ve gained not only hard science and lab skills, but life skills as well, that I will take with me into my future career in the medical field and beyond.
It’s actually kind of funny looking back now on the path I took. When I came to Pitt as a freshman, I never had a strong desire to do research: it seemed boring, and quite frankly, it seemed too complicated for my undergraduate mind to ever grasp. Fast forward three years, and I’m quite surprised and grateful to find myself working on an independent research project that I have turned into a full-blown thesis, of which I will be defending in fulfillment of the Bachelor of Philosophy degree (more on this to come in my second blog-post!). So how exactly did I get involved in research?
My first involvement in research was through the First Experiences in Research (FER) program, which is offered to first-year students through the Office of Undergraduate Research. I remember receiving an email about this and half-heartedly filling out the required documents and submitting them, not because I was interested in research itself, but solely because I thought it would look good on my résumé. The position I was offered was in the School of Public Health at the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health where I examined chemically-induced acute lung injury in mice models. This was when my interest in research was really sparked, and I was hooked on the experience. Immediately following my poster presentation at the annual FER symposium, I contacted the Office of Undergraduate Research to set up a more permanent research position for my sophomore year. This lead to my current position at the Vascular Medicine Institute under the mentorship of Dr. Adam Straub, Dr. Jeffrey Isenberg, and three wonderful postdoctoral fellows. I’ve been here ever since!
There are many ways to get the most out of your research position – the key, in my opinion, is to be assertive and proactive in finding ways to expand your experience. I first started out by doing research for credit (5 hrs/week = 1 credit). This allowed my research schedule to be pretty flexible, as I was still getting the hang of balancing schoolwork and extracurricular activities with my hours at the lab. Once I became more comfortable with committing more time to working at the lab, I started going to weekly lab meetings headed by my principal investigator. This was valuable time for me as an undergraduate student because I had the opportunity to learn more about the ongoing projects in my lab, as well as receive feedback on my research progress. Come junior year, I decided to apply for the Brackenridge Research Fellowship for the fall semester. This fellowship provided me with a research grant and a semester-long seminar that emphasized interdisciplinary programming. The seminar was headed by a faculty member of the Honors College, who facilitated presentations and in-depth discussion amongst the fellows. Not only did we learn about each fellow’s research, but we also attended weekly seminars led by Pitt faculty, across a multitude of subject areas. The following semester I was awarded the Chancellor’s Research Fellowship, which also provided me with a research grant for my project. These two fellowships were great ways for me to continue to learn about other students’ research projects and expand my project, which is something I encourage all undergraduate researchers to pursue (especially if you are receiving credit for your research position)!
After utilizing these two research grants, I wanted to make my research experience even more tangible and concrete. After looking at all the resources offered through the University, I decided to expand my research even further by applying for the Bachelor of Philosophy degree (BPhil for short). At first, I was very intimidated by the requirements to fulfill the degree – not only was a full-length written thesis required, which is equivalent to that of a Master’s degree thesis, but also a scheduled defense of the thesis before a self-selected committee of faculty examiners. I almost backed out of submitting the application. However, the more I thought about it, the more I felt that this was the next step for me to truly get the most out of my research experience. I submitted the application at the end of my junior year, and a couple weeks later, I received word from the University Honors College that I was officially a candidate for the BPhil. Two days ago, after selecting a panel of thesis committee members, including one external committee member from Washington University School of Medicine, I selected the official date for my defense!
Which brings me back full circle to the heart of my project, as mentioned earlier in this blog post. There are many reasons why I stayed on this project for so long, but the main reason is because of my passion for the sciences and my personal tie to this project. I, like many of us, know someone very close to me who suffered from Alzheimer’s. The manifestation of the symptoms is not only devastating to the patient, but to everyone else around them as well. It’s a slow but progressive disease with no cure, and it affects more and more people each year. Dr. David Satcher, who was the former U.S. Surgeon General and former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said, “Alzheimer's is the most under-recognized threat to public health in the 21st century.” Although I am only one out of the many people who are conducting research on Alzheimer’s, I hope I can contribute a small, but meaningful piece to this vast network.
Questions about getting involved in research or applying for research grants? Stop by Grace's office hours Wednesdays from 11-noon in the Langley Lobby!
Sophomore Microbiology student
It’s midway through Spring semester, I was stressed, physically tired, and mentally exhausted. Between classes, diving practice, work, and club involvement, I had a lot going on. All I wanted was for Fall scheduling to go smoothly, and it did—mostly. There wasn’t much freedom with the classes I had to take, as they were all for my major and certificate, both of which are on a fairly strict timeline. I managed to work out a schedule with all the classes I needed without having time conflicts with practice. Amazing. The only thing about my schedule that agitated me ever so slightly was the Bio II Lab I had to sign up for. Of all the sections offered in the Fall semester, there was only one that fit, and it was a Wednesday night section of Pathways Over Time.
Prior to scheduling, I had read the descriptions of each of the research-based labs and ordered them most to least preferred. I’ll be honest, Pathways was at the very bottom (sorry, Natasha and Jess). But, I thanked the scheduling deities for allowing me to take the classes I needed to take, and got over it. At the very least, I could keep a positive attitude and an open mind.
Come September, not even a full month into the class, and I absolutely loved it. Wednesdays were certainly my longest day of the week. I was up early for practice at 6:00am, followed by two classes and another practice, followed by two more classes, and finally lab, which ended at 10:20pm. But no matter how drained I felt prior to lab, my energy was restored upon arriving.
The Pathways course is designed to introduce students to lab research and scientific thinking. If you decide to take the class, the project you’ll be working on is investigating whether genes involved in the methionine biosynthesis pathways of two related species of yeast have been functionally conserved. You’ll learn important lab techniques, such as different plating methods, preparing a PCR reaction, loading and running an agarose gel, and restriction mapping. You’ll also learn a bit about the research process, like how to plan a proper experiment that includes positive and negative controls. Additionally, there is a computational component of the course, in which you’ll learn how to navigate a couple of genome databases (which can be very overwhelming to a new user). To end the course, you will present your findings at a poster session to other undergraduates and staff and faculty in the department.
For any future scientist, Pathways will be an extremely valuable experience. Even if you don’t plan on pursuing a PhD and a research career, the course is enjoyable (in my opinion) because you get to apply what you’ve learned in class, and you don’t have all the answers given to you. You’re going to have hypotheses and perform experiments, but you don’t know for sure what results you’ll achieve. Piecing together what you already know and the results you see to form conclusions is really exciting (and maybe even satisfying). And who knows? This class just might spark your interest in a research career.
Pitt Bio Blog
The Pitt Bio Blog is maintained by the Department of Biological Sciences Advising Office. Posts are authored by our students