During my senior year of college, I got to know a professor from Cambridge who had recently come to the US, and we had many conversations about the differences between scientific research in the US and Europe. This professor often lamented the lack of creativity in American science, saying that the American way was to throw money at the question instead of designing sophisticated experiments to get at the heart of the problem. I’m not sure that I agree with such a stark dichotomy, but I certainly have been impressed with the creativity of the scientists around me here at Trinity. In many ways, I think the shortage of funding for basic science research here (and in the US, to a lesser extent) has led to novel approaches and techniques in the lab.
Personally, I’ve found my lab work to be very exciting and challenging. I’m working in a largely unexplored field, studying potential uses for adipose-derived stem cells (basically just plain old fat, of the sort that you could obtain from a liposuction procedure) as therapeutic tools for repairing spinal degeneration. Traditionally, scientists have used bone-marrow derived tissues in order to obtain stem cells for treatments, but obtaining bone marrow is a long and painful process that requires inserting a needle inside the hip bone and leads to an extended recovery time. For this reason, there is a growing movement of scientists who are trying to locate other populations of stem cells in the body, one of them being in the fat layers. This is a pretty cool idea because it could one day allow physicians and scientists to easily obtain stem cells from adult patients that could then be used to treat a variety of conditions ranging from Alzheimer’s disease to macular degeneration to some forms of diabetes.
The learning curve in the lab was pretty steep in my case as my background is in cellular neuroscience, so thinking like a tissue engineer doesn’t come intuitively to me. I’m very lucky that the Primary Investigator who runs the lab I am working in is a hands-on supervisor who has provided a lot of guidance and structure to my project, so I don’t feel like I’m treading water.
While I anticipated a challenging and intensive research project in the lab, I didn’t realize coming into the program how demanding my actual coursework would be. I’m in class for nearly 20 hours a week, something I haven’t done since my freshman year of college! However, I’m definitely enjoying the lectures and the new material I’m coming across. The Bioengineering modules I’m enrolled in are geared towards students who will eventually hold industry positions, working to develop novel biomaterials, surgical implants, etc. As an aspiring surgeon, I have always been interested in the biology of disease, but I hadn’t previously given much thought to the materials and devices that surgeons use on a daily basis. My course in Biomaterials has been terrific in this regard because it has forced me to think about the subtleties and nuances of the various materials (titanium, ceramics, etc.) that are commonly used in surgical procedures and how the selection of these materials can lead to drastic changes in recovery time and overall success of the procedure.
As a last note, a lot of the terms that European scientists and physicians use are different from the terms that are used by their American counterparts, which has led to some amusing miscommunications with other members of the lab. I didn’t realize that an operating room is called a “theatre” here, so I spent the first few weeks confused by why my boss was regularly leaving in the middle of the day to watch movies for hours!