Learning new skills, in lab and in communication
Posted June 25, 2012
It’s hard to believe two weeks of the SciXchange program has already passed. It seems like only yesterday that I was packing my things, gearing up for a summer of research in Columbia. I’ve found that although it’s gone quickly, I’ve learned so much already, both in the SciXchange program and in my lab work.
In the SciXchange progam, I’m understanding how important it is for scientists to be able to communicate research and other science news with the public. Being able to communicate research in an effective way takes a certain skill set, and I’m learning it’s more difficult than I first thought it would be.
In the lab, I’ve been getting deeper into one of my projects. The project involves testing whether one species of lamprey is a viable species to use for spinal cord injury (SCI) experiments. This new species that I’m working with is called the brook lamprey. Right now, the main species used in experiments in our lab is the sea lamprey. This is because an extensive amount of research has already been done with the sea lamprey. I’m working on this project to see how the two species compare. This will determine whether the brook lamprey can be used in the lab for SCI experiments, just as the sea lamprey currently are.
One way I’m working to compare the two species is by comparing their patterns of muscle activity as they swim. I do this with a technique called electromyography (EMG), which records the electrical activity produced by skeletal muscles. I record the electrical activity produced by the lamprey’s muscles as it swims. Running these experiments is a typical day in the lab for me. First, I choose a subject lamprey and then insert wires into its muscles. After the wires are inserted, the animal is set free to swim. The lamprey contracts and relaxes its muscles in a certain pattern as it swims about. Electrical signals are used by muscles as they contract, so the wires I inserted into the lamprey pick up on and record electrical activity produced. I obtain a record of its swimming pattern in this manner.
Once I’ve obtained the EMG recording of the swimming lamprey, the next part of my experiment requires some computer work. The EMG recording is eventually converted into statistical data to explain the swimming pattern using different computer analysis programs. Not every experiment I run is perfect, to say the least, and I often find that my data is useless. If the wires weren’t prepared just right, for example, or weren’t inserted correctly, or came loose during the experiment, that particular EMG recording may yield poor results and won’t be useful to my overall project.
I’m working on improving my precision with each new experiment I run, and my patience with the project overall. I’m coming up with a greater amount of valuable data each week. My goal is to compile concrete statistical data for the swimming pattern of the brook lamprey to be compared to the sea lamprey. This method of comparison, as well as other projects, will help us to determine if the two species can be used interchangeably.