Monday, July 23, 2012


I know it’s been a while since I’ve posted, but I have had a very busy week!  I gave my internship presentation twice last Monday (it went just fine, nobody asked any terribly hard questions!), packing up my car in between, and drove home to Michigan that evening.  I then spent four very full days at home packing and catching up with friends and family, before flying down to Quito, Ecuador on Saturday!  I am spending the fall semester studying abroad in Quito, and I will be blogging during my time here!  You can follow my new blog here:

I am very glad Dr. McElroy had me put together a presentation before I left Iowa because it required me to reflect on my entire internship experience.  I have learned SO MUCH this summer!  Before my summer in Iowa City, I had never even performed research in a wet lab.  Now I am comfortable with several lab techniques, I understand the grant writing and submission process, I have put together a research talk, and I know much more about diseases common to premature infants.  Not to mention that I witnessed the first few moments of the lives of about 10 new babies!  I owe a huge thank you to Dr. McElroy for bringing me to the University of Iowa and giving me this opportunity; many researchers would hire an undergrad just to wash the glassware.  I consider myself very lucky to have had this opportunity. 

There are probably many more things I could say about my summer, but the week since I left Iowa feels like a year.  Right now I would rather look forward than back - on to the next adventure!

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Two Photons Are Better Than One

I try to stay away from describing the technical aspects of lab work because a lot of what we do is not very interesting and the rest would be very hard to comprehend without two or three years of college bio classes, in large part due to the terminology (one of my bio professors likes to remind us that studying science is like learning another language).  However, yesterday over lunch some of the research assistants from the Moreland  Lab across the hall told me about one of the microscopy techniques they use, and it sounded cool enough that I am going to try to tell you guys about it!  I will try my best to explain things in a way that everyone can get an idea of what I'm saying.  I also should warn you, my knowledge base is very limited, so I don't completely know what I am talking about. ;-)

The majority of techniques that my lab (the McElroy Lab) uses are fairly standard in the research world - many of which I was exposed to in my biology labs at Juniata - like Western blotting, immunohistochemistry, PCR, and RT-PCR (if you don't know what those are, don't worry about it, it probably wouldn't be interesting to you anyway).  The Moreland Lab, which is researching a type of white blood cell called a neutrophil, operates on a much larger scale; Dr. Moreland has gotten two grants of $1 million from the NIH, that should give you an idea of the scale of the lab.  They use the procedures that we do and many more. 

One of the techniques the Moreland lab is using is called "two-photon" microscopy.  This is a special technique that allows scientists to look at living specimens, at a depth of up to 1mm (in the microscopy world this is very thick!).  Basically, two-photon microscopy is an extension of standard fluorescent microscopy - light energy of a specific wavelength is absorbed by molecules which then release the energy in the form of light of a different wavelength ("fluorescence").  The difference is that two-photon microscopy uses light of half the energy (to reduce damage to the specimen, so it can be living) and consequently two photons are needed (rather than one) to excite each fluorescent molecule.  This is a picture of what I just tried to say, for those of you who are familiar with Jablonski Diagrams:

From: Nikon MicroscopyU

You need a special laser to do this because you need a very strong light beam, so not many labs have this technology.  The Moreland lab is using two-photon microscopy to look at neutrophils moving through the bloodstream of a live mouse!  How cool is that?!  To do this, they isolate neutrophils from a blood sample and tag them with fluorescent proteins.  The mouse is put under anesthesia and its foot is glued to the microscope stage.  Then they inject the mouse with a substance to make its veins glow (under the microscope) so that they can easily find the bloodstream.  They inject the tagged neutrophils into the mouse's abdomen, and lead them to the foot by injecting the foot with a "chemoattractant" which causes neutrophils to come to the foot.  Finally, they attempt to excite the fluorescent molecules and observe the neutrophils!  I can't get over this technology; the fact that you can watch a live cell in a live organism using fluorescence is just so amazing!

Although we can't do two-photon microscopy in the McElroy lab, our new microscope can take some pretty cool pictures!  We can do standard confocal microscopy and fluorescent microscopy, here is an example of each:

Small Intestine, 10x

Neutrophils in NEC Intestine, 20x

Friday, July 6, 2012

Making Progress

Today was a busy day in the NICU!  Over the course of the morning we had two new babies brought in from other hospitals, so the residents were busy assessing the new patients and getting them settled in.  We also got to move one baby out of Bay 1 and into Bay 2/3 (Bay 1 is for babies requiring the most intensive care, so moving to Bay 2/3 means the patient is doing well)!  This was especially exciting for me because I had also gotten to see her when she was brought into the NICU during her first few minutes of life.  She was a tiny 650g then and, while she is still small, now she is growing and doing well.  Because I am only in the NICU once a week, I don’t usually get any kind of closure with patients who leave; I come in one day and all I know is they are not in Bay 1 anymore and a new baby is in their place.  It was great to be able to see a patient’s progression from her most fragile on the day she was born, to today when she is strong enough to do well with less care.  We all waved and smiled as the nurses rolled her little bed off down the hallway.
Back in lab, I am wrapping up my projects.  My villus length work is done, and I plan on finishing with my RT-PCR work on Tuesday!  This week I have been working on putting together a presentation on my summer internship experience.  I will be giving the 30-40 minute long talk twice on July 16, my last day here in Iowa City: once at the lab meeting for the labs in our hall, and once to the Neonatology faculty.  I am a little nervous to present to the Neonatologists, as they know so much more than I do about the topics I am presenting.  However, Dr. McElroy has been helping me put the presentation together and will look over everything before I present, so I am not allowing myself to get too anxious about it.  Working on my presentation has made me realize how much I have learned in my time here, and just how little time I have left.  It is hard to believe that I only have 10 more days!  Time flies when you’re having fun!

Friday, June 29, 2012

All In A Day's Work

108F.  That was the real-feel temperature this afternoon in Iowa City!  When I walked out of the highly air conditioned lab, I felt as if I had walked into a solid wall of heat.  My sunglasses steamed up and my hands felt clammy due to the sudden increase in humidity.  But when I complained about the heat, native Iowans told me, “just wait until the end of July, it gets worse!”  Luckily, I won’t have to find out, as the last day of my internship here is July 16th.

It took me awhile to decide what to write about in this post because for the last few weeks I have been doing more or less the same things in lab, but then I thought of something I haven’t told you guys about yet.  C-sections!  So far I have been to three C-sections and in doing so I have witnessed the birth of four babies.  These have been some of my favorite experiences of the summer so far.

Throughout rounds in the NICU it is not uncommon for one of the residents’ pagers to go off; usually it is another department calling to answer a consult or to ask a question.  Sometimes, though, all four pagers go off loudly at once.  In my experience, this means one thing: more hands are needed in the operating room!  Usually two residents and a nurse respond to the call, and since I’ve started wearing scrubs in place of professional clothes, I’m allowed to tag along!  The whole thing is very efficient because the OR is directly next door to the NICU.

We hurry down the hall to a big cabinet where we dress for the operating room: blue shoe covers, yellow long-sleeve smock, gloves, mask, and hair-covering.  By the time we are all suited up, our eyes and ears are the only skin showing and it’s nearly impossible to tell us apart (this makes me feel better going into the OR, because at least I look like I know what I’m doing).  Then we head through a pair of huge double doors.  By the time we arrive, the surgeons are already well on their way to opening the uterus.  In subsequent conversations with my housemates, I’ve learned that C-sections are well known to be some of the “goriest” surgeries simply due to the volume of blood and fluid that is involved.  I didn’t know this my first time observing though, and I was glad my mask covered me as I stared open mouthed at the outpouring of blood.  When the surgeons finally punctured the amniotic sac, my first thought was of a volcano; suddenly I understood why the surgeons had plastic shields covering their faces from mouth to forehead.

Once the incision is made, the surgeons pull the baby out - a task which turns out to be very laborious.  They pull and push and strain until finally the infant slips out and is handed immediately to the baby team (in this case, the NICU residents).  It is the baby team’s job to rub and suction the baby until it cries, then clean and swaddle it.  One of the babies I saw delivered weighed over 10 lbs!  She looked HUGE compared to the tiny infants I’m used to seeing in the NICU.  The delivering surgeon was petite, and clearly had to struggle to pull the baby out.  As another surgeon, observing next to me, said into my ear, “poor thing, that baby is bigger than she is!”

During each baby’s first few minutes of life, I like to watch the family members who are present in the operating room; sometimes the father has come, other times it is a sister or grandmother.  But without fail, they all tear up and watch in joyous disbelief as the newest member of their family turns pink and wails.  It reminds me of how wonderful life is, and of all the amazing potential ahead of every newborn.  Meanwhile, the baby team takes the new baby to “Transition” where it will prepare to go home, and heads back to finish rounds in the NICU.  They treat the whole thing as if it is a perfectly normal occurrence.  It’s not quite normal to me yet though, and I count myself lucky to work with people for whom bringing  new life into this world is all in a day’s work.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012


The McElroy lab is growing! In the past two weeks, two new research assistants have started working here: Huiyu, who has many years of lab experience, and Mitch, who is a recent college graduate. With double the number of hands, our projects are quickly getting underway. Huiyu’s experience is a great resource for Matt, Mitch, and I; she is teaching us a lot!

Earlier this week I finished the first two sets of slides for villus measurements. We ran some statistics on the numbers, and for mice both 21- and 28-days-old there was a significant difference between the villus lengths of treated vs untreated mice. This is good news; thus far, our hypothesis is holding water. Even more exciting, I won the race to produce the first piece of data from our lab on the three projects we started this summer! Victory! I have four more villi slide sets to finish measuring and my ongoing RT-PCR work looking at changes in the intestinal stem cells, so I am keeping busy.

Happy Solstice, everyone!

Sunday, June 17, 2012

All About Med School

While brushing my teeth this morning I glanced out at the house parking lot and was amused by how similar all the cars were.  Parked behind Phi Rho are four Camrys, two Impalas, three Accords, two Civics, and one lonely Ford Edge crossover.  I have entered the world of the mid- to late- twenty-somethings - the land of the young professionals.  Two of my closest friends here are 26 and 29 (to my 20); everyone in the house is at least three years older than I am.  For the most part, the age gap is barely noticeable and I usually forget about it, but from time to time differences between this crowd and that of the undergrads jump out at me.  Some of these differences are humorous it seems like someone runs off to a wedding almost every other day – while others are more unnerving.  For example, the med students mention debt quite a bit.  A few days ago my friend Katy (talking about undergraduate loans) said nonchalantly, “well I was able to pay off about $10,000 dollars last year, and if I keep budgeting well I hope to pay off another $8,000 this year and then I will only have $4,000 to go!”  Yikes!  However, my housemates have instructed me that I am not allowed to start worrying about debt until at least after I’ve graduated from Juniata.  So I’m ok for now.

One of the perks of living in a house full of medical students is getting an inside look at med school.  Again, there are unsettling aspects; for example, most of the second years are all but invisible because they have shut themselves away in order to finish the months long process of studying for the Boards, a cumulative exam that weighs heavily on the residency position they will receive (again, I have been told I am not allowed to worry about this yet).  But it’s also very cool to hear them sit around and discuss cases they encounter during rotations or situations from recent classes.  I have gotten to hear about many of the fun traditions at Iowa’s med school and learn about their future aspirations, and it is all extremely interesting.  Yesterday I got very excited about the idea of med school because an MD/PhD student told me about the various classes he has taken here.  His favorite course was anatomy lab because, “when you pick up the scalpel and prepare to make your first cut, it hits you that you are being trusted with the opportunity to do something that most people in the world are prohibited from doing.  The power and responsibility of the position you are training for really hits you in that moment!”  It is clear the med students are all very passionate about learning, science, and medicine.  I cannot wait to join their ranks!  

It has also been very informative to discuss with my housemates why they chose to come to Iowa over other med schools.  In talking with them I am learning what to look for and what questions to ask when I begin my search.  Many of the current med students did not come here directly after undergrad, but took time to do things like serve in the military, conduct research, or join the Peace Corps
; since I am planning on taking a gap year between undergrad and med school, it is reassuring to know that I will not be out of the ordinary.  With the gap year I still have three years until I start medical school, but I am already looking forward to it!

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Lab Update

Working in a lab can be summed up in one word: patience (no, not patients; that's working in the hospital).  Most of the time is spent planning and preparing for the crucial data-producing step of an experiment.  Of course, this crucial step (which involves a lot of waiting while the experiment runs) usually does not work the way you thought it would, so it's back to planning again.  The hope is that eventually you find the right parameters and conditions, produce good data, and maybe even learn something new!

My project, which should have started around the beginning of the month, had to be pushed back because the company we order the supplies from lost our order.  We reordered and the materials got here on Monday!  So I am moving forward.  However, last week while I was waiting I got to become very good friends with this guy:

This is our new Nikon microscope!  It can do both bright field and fluorescence imaging, and it is very, very nice.  I've been using it to measure the lengths of intestinal villi (the little fingers that stick out into the intestine to absorb nutrients) on slides from mice that Dr. McElroy used in past experiments.  The goal is that I measure about 100 villi per slide on 50 or more slides, so I have been seeing A LOT of this:

We are comparing villi lengths between mice treated with two different substances.  It is not very interesting, but it needs to be done.  But now that my materials are here I can put villi measuring on hold and start looking at variation in stem cell gene expression in mice that we induced to develop NEC!
Here I am in the process of extracting RNA

Tomorrow is a big day in lab because we are going to induce NEC in 10 mice pups, and then after several hours we will harvest the small intestine and preserve it.  We use the tissue to make slides and extract protein and RNA for our various experiments.

Matt prepares small intestine samples

 This is our -80 C freezer where we store tissue samples, RNA, cDNA, etc.  Every time I open it I feel like I am opening some kind of crazy time machine because so much steam billows out!