This post, by Ali Sayed-Ahmad of Wayne State University, is part of an occasional series written by undergraduate neuroscience students. If you are an undergraduate interested in writing about neuroscience for the Dana blog, or a professor who might have interested students, please contact Andrew Kahn at email@example.com for more information.
Though we do not think about it much, the three-pound spongy mass residing in our skull is a miraculous product of nature. From this highly condensed and intertwined structure, myriad complex behaviors such as language processing, consciousness, and metacognition (knowing about knowing) arise, setting us apart from other species in our vast biosphere. Over the course of my studies as an undergraduate student studying neuroscience, I have realized we do not yet know the complete physiological mechanisms modulating these complex behaviors. Until we can answer fundamental questions like how we learn or what exactly dreams are, neuroscience remains a great frontier in science.
Like many other scientists around the world, I have caught “neuroscience fever.” What makes neuroscience so attractive is the fact it is a very interdisciplinary field of research that combines biology, psychology, physics, medicine, computer science, and many other branches of knowledge. My interest in neuroscience began in high school, when my biology teacher taught us about the neuron. This type of cell, with its beautifully branching neurites, changed my perception of the bland spherical cells I saw in introductory biology textbooks. What impressed me the most, however, was learning how the neurons generate a voltage output to communicate with other neurons.
I further pursued my interest in neuroscience by joining Dr. Karen Myhr’s lab at Wayne State University, where I was working to develop an in vivo method that examines the localization and translation of mRNA in cultured cortical neurons. This project was exciting because translation and localization of mRNA in the dendrites of neurons is vital to the function and plasticity of the brain. These mRNAs allow rapid synthesis of proteins in response to neural stimulation, which increases the long-term potentiation of connections between neurons. Significant cognitive impairments, such as those in Fragile X syndrome, can arise from disruption in the translation of dendritic mRNA. After multiple trials, I was able to identify an effective method to track these mRNAs, called peptide-mediated endocytosis. This involved using cell penetrating proteins and a fluorescent dye to enter the living cell.
Through the course of my experiments, I realized that research is challenging because there are many variables to manipulate and protocols to perfect. But it’s also immensely rewarding to realize I am making a difference in the world by adding knowledge that could potentially help people.
An important aspect of my time in Dr. Myhr’s lab was participating in neuroscience outreach activities. One of the most enjoyable volunteering experiences I participated in the past two years was Brain Awareness Week. Going to the Detroit Science Center to show young kids and their parents cow eye dissections and teach them about the retina is important to get kids excited about neuroscience. As time progresses, I hope to get more people inspired by neuroscience the same way I am.
–Ali Sayed-Ahmad, Wayne State University, Biological Sciences, Class of 2012
This year, Brain Awareness Week is March 14–20. In March, check out the BAW International Calendar of Events to see what's up in your area. Researchers, students, and teachers can join the fun now as partners, planning to host or assist at myriad events.