Two weeks ago, I went to Brain Night: a lecture series hosted on the medical campus that dishes out a sweet, righteous serving of neuroscience. A bunch of us on NeuroJAYS were going, AND Professor Gorman had promised a point of extra credit for everyone that went…so I’ll take it. The night’s lecture was by Dr. Hongjun Song – the director of a joint effort between the Hopkins’ stem cell branch and neuroscience department. He’s kind of a rockstar. He talked about his works studying a few very specific parts of the brain where neurons have been observed to regenerate, which is huge. In mice, they singled out some of these adult stem cells and tracked them over time to see how they grew, what influenced them, and what they did. As I was taking it in, it kind of hit me at once: Wait, this is actually really, really cool. As in, “I want to help” type of cool.
With JHU_Noah and JHU_Hayley cheering me on, I sort of stumbled towards him at the end of the lecture when everyone was leaving. Without letting myself think, I introduced myself and said something along the lines of “yo lemme in, this brain stuff you do is tight”.
Long story short, emails and CC’s later, here I am today having just come back from my first day at the lab. But I wanted to take you with me, so I took pictures whenever I could/no one was watching. Join me on my first day of research as I try to make science happen.
It all starts with the JHMI. Love this thing. On weekdays, it runs every 15 minutes and takes me from the Barnes and Nobles of Homewood Campus right to the front door of the med school. The trip takes about 25 minutes or so because of stops, which isn’t too bad at all.
I get off the shuttle and head towards the lab. It’s in the Miller building, which is this colossal glass tower that links to other research buildings and the hospital.
Entering through the revolving door, I walk down this steel and glass hallway towards the elevators. The opportunities for study spaces here are incredible. I might just take a shuttle down here to work on a paper or study or something.
I go up to the 7th floor and am welcomed by the lab’s title plaque thing and their directory. A good portion of the floor’s shared by two labs: Dr. Song and Dr. Ming. Okay now here’s the cool part. They’re husband and wife. They found love in a germless place.
Going down the hallway that serves as the backbone to the floor, I take a right and head into the Song lab. I find my postdoc, Daniel, in the imaging room looking at 3D slices of mouse hippocampus with different stains toggled on and off to identify the stem cells. He’s unbelievably nice and helpful, and he sets me up right away with a training plan for the day that he’d already planned up for me. I’d spent some time in cancer labs in high school, but never a neuro lab. A lot of the procedures were similar, but then again many were new, and so my crash course began.
First, he had me practice immunohistochemistry prep for slices of mouse brain tissue. Basically, they take the brain of a mouse they’ve been studying and (sorry) cut it up into slices that are only 45 microns thick. Each slice is put in a separate well on a plate in order, so that after processing it, the computer (and the power of gung-ho undergrads) can manually stitch all the layers together to form a nice, colorful 3D slice. I learned how to transfer the nearly invisible, wispy layers of tissue from the wells to a wash plate, then back to the wells. It gets hard because you can barely see them in the clear liquid, and they’re so small that we need to fish each of the slices out with acupuncture needles with a millimeter-thick loop fashioned at the end. But it’s also oddly relaxing once you get into the rhythm of it.
After setting up the plates, I take a break for lunch. There’s this sweet glass atrium thing on the third floor than literally hangs between two buildings. AND AND AND they have a Daily Grind here! For those who don’t know, the Daily Grind is the Hopkins cafe in Brody that recently opened up in the Mudd atrium as well. It’s what keeps Homewood campus awake, and seeing it at the med school was comforting (a week earlier, when I first discovered it, I tried using Dining Dollars to get coffee with my J-Card. Needless to say, she had no idea what I was trying to do and I sheepishly walked away pretending I was invisible). This is like a Daily Grind Plus, because they also have a full cafe behind the counter with sandwiches and a pizza. Also by the way, the cashier was a Patel (!! like me !!) and we ended up getting into a pretty long conversation afterwards when he was restocking some chips.
After lunch, I meet up with Daniel again. He hands me a PCR protocol and helps me through it. It’s been a while, and I’ve almost completely forgotten how it works, but he’s incredibly helpful and supportive. All this talk about Hopkins being one of the top research institutions in the world is starting to make sense now. The size of the lab, the amount of advanced equipment it houses, and the insanely smart people it’s filled with all serve as testaments to Hopkins’ prowess in the academic community. It’s humbling to work alongside some of the most brilliant thinkers on the planet, pulling from their expertise to add to your own little bubble of growing knowledge.
To end the day, Daniel shows me how to actually make the slices using the coolest machine ever. Basically, the tiny mouse brain gets placed on this metal plate that’s super-cooled using dry ice, causing the brain to freeze. Then, a razorblade slices a layer of brain, and you use a tiny paintbrush to catch it and put it in the well of a plate. Then, you pull a lever, and the platform moves up 45 microns (you don’t visibly see it rise), and then you make another cut. It’s tedious if you think it is, but it becomes a lot of fun if you pause each time to look at the nearly-transparent slice and look at how it’s changing every time to try to identify key structures. Yeah, yeah, call me a nerd if you want. But c’mon. That’s cool.
After that, we call it a day. In just 9 hours, I’ve learned so much and fallen deeper in love with the projects I’ll be working on for quite a while. I proudly reflect on the fact that I haven’t spilled anything (significant) today, the lab is still intact, and I still have all my fingers. I grab my bag and head out for the shuttle, but not before I catch a glimpse of the view from a window in the lab.