What research have you participated in?
I’m an undergraduate student volunteering in Dr. Menard’s chemistry and biology lab. The chemistry part of the lab is working on creating molecular probes — molecules that can be attached to proteins in the brain to label and monitor them. The biological part of our lab is working on various topics like synapse elimination and neurodegeneration [by] working with cells.
I'm trying to work with [a protein called] NOX2 (NADPH oxidase 2). It is expressed in a lot of cells in our body, for example, microglia in the brain [which are cells that support the nervous system]. NOX2 produces reactive oxygen species [unstable molecules] in response to damage or foreign pathogens. It is suspected that the uncontrolled production of reactive oxygen species by this particular protein can trigger neurodegenerative disease. So, it is important for us to understand how it works.
Also, it is important to develop and test inhibitors. The graduated Master’s student in Dr. Menard’s lab was working with a NOX2 inhibitor, VAS2870. What I want to do is try to bind a derivative of this inhibitor to the protein in order to see where it binds, and then continue working from that.
Currently, I'm at the stage of just practicing. So, over the summer, I was running a bunch of SDS-PAGE(s), [which is an analytical technique to separate proteins based on their molecular weight], and trying to lyse cells – kill[ing] them to get their protein component. First, I was practicing on Chinese Hamster Ovary (CHO) cells… they're more robust adherent cells [so I] tried to develop protocols [from these]. Now I'm trying to adapt my protocols to the cells that I want to work with ideally.
Could you tell the story of how you approached the professor who supervises your research?
At the end of first year I [approached] chemistry professor Dr. McNeil, although I wasn’t in his class. I decided to talk to him because there are outlines of what research professors do [online], and I found the abstract interesting for Dr. McNeil's research. Actually, a funny thing, I was scrolling through the website, and I saw Dr Menard’s research. I was like, this sounds really cool, this sounds awesome, this sounds like something I really want to connect my life with, but there is no way I'm going to get into this lab while I'm an undergrad. So, I’ll try to talk to Dr. McNeil to get in his research lab, and then hopefully, either in my senior years of undergrad or in grad school, I'll be able to work with Dr. Menard.
I [went] to Dr. McNeil’s office, gave him my resume, and we talked. He told me that he's not doing this research anymore, the website is outdated, and he's now doing educational research. Right at that moment he says, “Okay, let's see who's on the floor”. We were on the third floor of Fipke and Dr. Menard was in his office. Dr. McNeil took my hand and [showed] me into Dr. Menard’s office and was like, “Dr Menard, [here is a] very nice student interested in research”.
We talked with Dr. Menard about what they do in their lab. He showed me posters of what they do. I told him what I can potentially do and what I was dealing with, [given my] experience in research, both in the chemistry and biology fields. I was also doing computational studies, working with software for modelling the binding of a molecule to a protein.
Dr. Menard allowed me to come to his research group meeting and see other people's projects and I got really interested in Alicia Mercer's project. I started after my first year in summer, doing computational studies. I was trying to create different molecules in computer, including VAS2870 [the inhibitor], and bind them to a NOX2 model.
I think that by this computational study throughout my second year, I managed to gain some trust from Dr. Menard and my lab mates. This summer, I already started working in the lab and practicing with cells. It is going more towards real applied field research now.
What advice would you give students who are interested in research?
The main advice is probably not to be scared, and not to doubt that you are not worthy enough to get into the lab. Yes, there is a big chance that you are not going to get into the lab, not because you're bad, not because you are an undergrad, but because a lot of research profs either don't have enough funding or their labs are already full. But there is also a chance that you might interest them, or you might be useful for the lab. There is always this chance, and it is not wise, especially in terms of being future scientists, just to miss this chance and never even to try. If the prof says “no”, then okay, that's a “no”. Knock on another door, but if you are not even knocking on the door, no one will open it for you.
My research experience started with just going and talking to a professor. Most of them are very nice and encouraged to talk about the research. So, just go to their office hours. Just ask what they are doing, ask who they think in their department is doing what you might be interested in. Tell them what your interests are, and they will either give you advice or [possibly] offer you [a way] into their lab. Because they are mostly aware of what other research groups in their field do, they will redirect you to some other group, and it can be the beginning of a really cool path.
To conclude this series of interviews I would like to say that it is my hope that they will inspire you to approach professors and seek opportunities for research participation if that is what you want. Good luck!