Research at the Cellular Level

By Makoto Mori 11C

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"Trickle-Down Research," Spring 2011

Scrolling down a window on my web browser mindlessly to find a course to fill my writing requirement, I came across a class titled Good Germs, Bad Angels, Mutant Mice, and the Secret to Success. Not only did the title grab my attention, but also the fact that the course was cross-registered in eight different disciplines told me it deserved a detailed look. After reading the course description, I learned that this was a course designed to write a research grant proposal while hearing about experiences of researchers from various disciplines. It seemed to fit my interests perfectly. By that time, I was heavily involved in a computational chemistry research lab and was considering research as a component of my career. The only problem was securing a spot in the roster. Even as a senior, I struggled to find a spot and had to wait for one to open up.

So far in the class, we have listened to three PhD candidates in neuroscience, microbiology, and sociology speak to us about their research and life experiences that led them to their research topics. As an undergraduate at Emory, I had opportunities to listen to the lectures of many accomplished researchers, including Nobel laureates, but it was eye-opening to hear about what led the early-career researchers to their projects and accomplishments. Their personal stories made the career in research seem more approachable.

This course has been one of the many reasons I am glad that I am at Emory, particularly because of the class’s emphasis on research in a liberal arts context. I transferred to Emory from a small college in Tennessee, looking for a more rigorous science program and opportunities to participate in a scientific research. Since then, I have been given chances to participate in the Summer Undergraduate Research Program at Emory, to present my work at a national conference, and to write for publications. Those experiences have been very rewarding as I got to communicate with many scientists about my work and hear about their passions in exchange. The collaborative thinking that took place on those occasions was something that really excited me and drove me back to the lab to conduct more experiments.

My research deals with the question, “What are some driving mechanism behind cell membrane raft formation?” Generally speaking, membrane raft is a dynamic region on cell membranes that is characterized by a high concentration of cholesterol and a type of lipid called saturated-tail lipids. This membrane raft has been under intense investigation because this region is involved in various cell signaling pathways and compartmentalization of specific proteins, things that are very important in pharmaceutical and cancer research. Approaching this problem with computer simulations is relatively a young field born of the recent explosion in computer technology, and it is exciting to be part of such intensely growing area.

During the course of research, I experienced few moments of breakthroughs, which gave me very addictive “highs.” One of the first highs I had was rather embarrassing, however. Earlier in my research, I learned how to write simple computer programs, which gave me an ability to analyze the data from essentially unlimited perspectives, including some so narrowly focused that they do not have any practical implications. One evening in the lab, I wrote a program that let me discover a connection between certain parameters. I got very excited, as I was fairly confident from my readings that such connection has never been published. My principle investigator (PI) was already gone for the day, so I had to keep to myself overnight what I thought was a major discovery. I literally could not go to sleep that night because of the excitement from naïve (and retrospectively embarrassing) imaginings of getting published and being known as the first one to discover such connection.

It turned out my focus was a bit off, however. As I stormed into my PI’s office the next morning with my exciting finding, my PI quickly disillusioned me with his terse comment, starting with “Well, let’s keep in mind the big picture and what might be useful in terms of practical applications.”

One of the greatest things about being part of research at Emory is the opportunity to work with accomplished scientists. Through many exchanges like the one I had above, my PI, James Kindt, has taught me to think like a scientist, and it gives me a research “high” when he and other scientists find my thinking and discoveries significant. It is also inspiring to see how he brings creativity and elegance into his theories and the new methods he devises.

Overall, the research experience at Emory has been very enjoyable and rewarding because it integrates so many things that I learn in classroom. The tool I use for my research is computer simulation, which involves a depth of computer science, and the subject of study is a biochemical system, which makes essentially all biology and chemistry courses I took helpful in the theoretical component of my project. The ORDER class ties them together and drives it all home in the form of grant proposal. In a more subtle sense, I was previously a music major at Emory, and the precise visual presentation and connections with the audience that I learned as a classical singer have helped me in presenting my theories and data in an artistic manner that is easily understood by the reader and audience. Because of those connections I made between my research and multidisciplinary learning, I realize I am reaping the benefits of the liberal arts education promoted at Emory, and it makes me glad that I am part of this community when those different elements manifest in my research work.

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