06. April 2015 · Comments Off · Categories: PhD

Perhaps because sight, I would argue, is the most precious sense, evolutionary pressures carefully selected for the most accurate and efficient visual system. The inconceivable amount of years that matured humans into what we are today have created a visual system that keeps your perception of color the same in sunlight, fluorescent light, and candle light. It lets you detect motion in your peripheral vision that even though you can form no concrete description, but you know something was/is there. Your eyes, which are an extension of the brain, let you perceive in three dimensions, giving you a sense of spatial arrangement and order in the objects around you so you can accurately grab your coffee. They let you perceive subtle emotions in the faces around you, not to mention help in navigating around your city. Perhaps because you so effortlessly enjoy this sense, it may be taken for granted far too often.

For those who are unlucky enough to inherit a genetic mutation that causes them to lose their vision, or those who suffer visual loss due to aging-related degenerations in the eye, there are resources and skills they will acquire to function independently. Orientation and mobility services, which I was fortunate enough to be exposed to on my clinical assignment at Perkins School for the Blind, can teach a patient who is blind to walk around independently in unfamiliar territory with only a white cane. They also teach patients how to cook, organize money so they know what amount each paper bill is worth, and how to use text-to-voice-capability devices, just to name a few. But unavoidably, people with visual impairment will need a sighted person’s help from time to time. For many, this may be a simple favor a family member can provide. But for those patients who live alone, have kids who have moved away, or have personal or financial matters to tend to that need to be kept confidential, they need someone like you to help.

The MABVI (Massachusetts Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired) is a nonprofit organization that links people in need to sighted volunteers, ready to spare a small amount of their time and lend their precious sight. Simple tasks like reading a piece of mail or perhaps tracking down an object misplaced in the living room can make a huge difference to the person you are helping. Can you imagine how organized you would have to be if you were blind? You would not have the luxury of doing the frantic eye-search to find a misplaced remote. Every item must be meticulously placed in order to locate it later.

The MABVI asks for you to commit a couple hours once a week or once every two weeks depending on your availability to help. The orientation training beforehand is very informal yet complete, as you will learn more about orientation and mobility, practice conversation with a stranger who may be in need, and practice guiding a person who is blind around any environment. I encourage everyone in Boston to look into becoming a MABVI volunteer, as the patients requesting help outnumber the amount of volunteers currently available. I foresee only benefits to both the patients and volunteers. I have just been matched as a new MABVI volunteer this week and really look forward to working with my match.

For more information, visit http://www.mabcommunity.org/mabvi/volunteer/our-volunteers.html.

26. February 2015 · Comments Off · Categories: PhD

This past Tuesday marked the end of my Foundation in Biological Sciences courses (FiBS) as part of my graduate curriculum at BU. I can’t say I will miss those 7+ hours of FiBS lectures every week, but I am thankful they have helped me transition into a PhD student. These courses expose you to the basics of what current research has found and what tools you have available to continue research. You learn the experiments and results of great scientists who have won Nobel Prizes for their contributions. I have realized that scientific research requires enormous creativity.

To find out answers to how a cell works, which is obviously on a level too small to observe directly, you have to create clever tools that will act as your eyes into the cell. And because what you “see” is not always what actually is, you must also create adequate controls, or baseline comparisons, that hold your visualization technique up to a test of accuracy. The reasoning in the experimenter’s head, e.g. adding input A creates output B, may have unforeseen intruders that are actually responsible for output B or unexpected results. Controls in experiments let you know with the most certainty possible that the result you measured were because of what you did, and not because of an extraneous variable.

This kind of diligence to quality control in science makes the process arduous, but also simplifies it. With the strict control measures, although possibly taxing and definitely time consuming, you can easily read the facts of your experiment and know how to proceed. If you keep studying the wrong conditions that you think give you the results you want, but really are not responsible for the results, you will waste time, resources, and much effort not only for yourself, but from other scientists who use your findings and try to build upon them.

The importance of quality control in science cannot be stressed enough. I believe one extremely unfortunate example of misleading science that has put people in danger is the “bad science” that claimed autism was linked to vaccines. From my perspective, this inadequate study claimed causation where there was only correlation. One reason this may have happened is that children are diagnosed with autism at the same age (1-3 years old) when their immune systems are matured enough to receive vaccines. Thus, it was observed that children are diagnosed with autism around the same time they are receiving immunizations. This observation has been thoroughly researched by many scientists and studied in millions of children, and many scientists believe the conclusion is simply a correlation – a coincidence. The cause of autism is still unknown. Unfortunately, the emotional component of this topic still has led many parents to decide not vaccinate their children.

Recent outbreaks of measles in the U.S., a disease that was before considered eradicated, are forcing parents to reevaluate where they get their information from, and if they should be resisting doctor’s recommendations because of opinions and anecdotes they have heard. I believe the real problem with vaccination being an option in the parent’s control is that children who are too young to receive vaccines and children in situations of immune compromise, such as receiving chemotherapy treatment for childhood cancers, have no option but to rely on the children around them to not be infected with disease and therefore not spread it. When you are lucky enough to live in the U.S. where vaccines are available and science is very advanced, I hope you get to take advantage of our medical privileges that keep us safe.

07. January 2015 · Comments Off · Categories: PhD

The year 2014 has flown by, I’m sure we all can agree. I have completed my first semester of my PhD program at Boston University! I will admit this was one of the hardest semesters I have endured, for many reasons, but the change from learning clinical education and visual science to molecular elements of the cell and how to handle mice was a big factor. I expect it to get easier from here as I am slowly learning how to study and test in my BU courses and I move forward with my own research projects.

My project examining postmortem human hippocampi, the part of the brain that creates and retains memories, will be my main focus in the spring semester. This project is investigating the protein expression changes in the hippocampus of patients with Alzheimer’s Disease (AD). Many people have heard of AD, as it is a devastating loss of memory that progresses to influence other aspects of yourself, like personality and mood, but there is little known about what causes 90% of AD cases. The most common form of AD, called late onset AD (LOAD), causes about 90% of cases, but the etiology of it remains evasive.

My project is looking for differences in protein expression in the postmortem hippocampus among patients with no LOAD, very early LOAD changes, and definitive LOAD diagnosis. In a blind examination of the tissue samples, if the protein expression differences correlate with the level of AD changes in the brain, then these proteins of interest are likely involved in AD pathogenesis and will be investigated further.

The protein expression patterns I am investigating include the presence of the protein in different cell types—either neurons or glial cells, the main component cells or assistant cells of the brain, respectively. Also, I am examining the difference in the quantitative levels of protein abundance in the neurons. All of these are investigated after I image the slides under brightfield microscopy (white light in a microscope) and import them into an image analysis software, ImageJ. Finally, once the identity of the cases (brain sections) are revealed to me, I can organize the data from the image software and analyze the groups for significant differences among them. At the end of March 2015, I will be presenting a poster of my data at the Experimental Biology Conference, which conveniently is located in Boston this year. Conferences are an excellent opportunity for reviewing your own work, practicing speaking about your research, and networking with professionals in your field.

I am very lucky to have incredible support from my mentors at BU. My mentor on the LOAD project is extremely organized, very proactive about finding me the best tools and resources available, and guiding me as I learn how to present and write about my data. NECO’s annual research day symposium conveniently falls two weeks after the Experimental Biology Conference, so I will also present my poster at NECO in April to share my project with the optometry students and faculty.

I hope everyone had a great holiday break and celebrates a fantastic new year!

25. November 2014 · Comments Off · Categories: PhD

Greetings friends,

For anyone who is just stumbling upon my blog, I am an OD/PhD dual degree student at NECO and Boston U. The program structure is a 3-3-1: 3 years at NECO, 3 years at BU, and 1 last year in clinic through NECO. I am almost to the halfway point! I have finished 3 years at NECO and am just starting my PhD program now. NECO is one of a few optometry schools that offers a dual degree where you can earn a PhD in addition to your OD.

Updates about my life at BU are in order. Firstly, I am now 2 months in to the official start of my PhD program. I have already finished with a 6 week graduate course on the genome, learned the lab techniques of PCR and immunostaining, and am currently continuing my summer research project using postmortem human brain tissue.

What’s the genome you ask? The genome is basically the library of your DNA, which is the chemical information that defines who you are, one cell at a time. The genome consists of all your genes in your 46 chromosomes. It’s like a library that has a book for every gene, and the words in the book are equivalent to your DNA sequences (the chemical code). What the genome is lacking, however, is what is known as the “transcriptome.”

The central dogma of how DNA makes you into you, says that DNA is rewritten in a slightly different chemical form, known as RNA, before that RNA is finally translated into a totally different molecular makeup, known as proteins. Then proteins carry out most of the functions of the cells. They are the work-horses, the energy-users, the trash degraders, etc.

But there is an intermediate between the “books” with instructions and the “workers” with the muscle. You could think of the intermediate, RNA, as the “brains of the operation,” taking the knowledge written in the books and integrating it to determine how they want to instruct the proteins to do the work.

The transcriptome is the library of all the RNA intermediates. It would theoretically simply mirror the genome (the DNA), except for there is a very efficient tool that the cells use to get more than one protein (the final product) from just one gene (in the DNA). The key is the RNA can be cut and pasted, modified, sent off to specific locations and specific machinery in the cell, and it can even be regulated by RNA itself. These intermediates between your DNA and your proteins allow for a huge amount of diversity in the cells. Your brain cells, muscle cells, gastric juice-secreting cells, and any others all have the same DNA! How that DNA is regulated, many times through the different forms of RNA or completely shutting down a section of the DNA, is how we get such diversity of cells in our bodies.

So that is what my first graduate class at BU was about – the genome and how the cell uses it. I will admit it was a fast-paced course, heavy in molecular details that I had not given too much thought to since undergrad. I’m very glad I took it though. It gave me a new perspective to use when reading journal articles or listening to scientific talks, knowing the context of the cellular environment.

As my advisor saw me consumed by my genome course and worried about my grades, he reminded me that when becoming a PhD, all that matters is the knowledge you contribute to your field. That motivated me to get back to the lab, get on the microscope, and look at things that no one has looked at before.

12. June 2014 · Comments Off · Categories: PhD

I am back in Boston after taking the longest vacation of my adult life. I spent two entire weeks in Florida, my home state, after the end of the spring semester. In undergrad and in optometry school, I was always doing something over the summers—classes, a work-study job, lab rotations, etc. I love student life, but you work very hard with minimal time off. For example, at NECO between the end of second year (spring) and the start of third year (summer), there is an infamous one day break, which is the Sunday between your last exam on Saturday and your new clinic orientation on Monday. So after completing my third year at NECO, in celebration of the end of my optometric courses, I took an extended vacation and it was lovely.

I separated my time in Florida among Tampa, Anna Maria, Orlando, Lakeland, and even Tavares. I got to see my family, celebrate my best friend’s birthday, and celebrate my dad’s birthday. I could not have asked for better weather, better company, or better food. I made sure to get in a healthy dosing of fried chicken, sweet tea, and waffle fries.

But I have to admit, I was ready to come back to Boston by the end of my break. I love that I live in a walking city. I love the sense of community here and I love all the inviting cafes. Moving to Boston from Florida is the biggest change I have made in my life thus far, and I love it.

There are many differing opinions on change. Some welcome it, some ask for it, and some deny, deny, deny, until they cannot deny the change any longer. But of course, we all agree that change is inevitable. Not surprisingly, the world of research also plays by the rules. In fact, change is the goal of research. Scientists are adding to the foundation of knowledge, facilitating further experimental studies, and improving the quality of life for humans.

In my modest research career thus far, I have recently hit a swivel in the road. I am one week into a brand new lab rotation. This lab rotation is a far jump from my zebrafish, as now I am literally looking into human tissue. I am studying the hippocampus, a small area deep in the brain that functions in memory. More specifically, I’m looking at histological sections of the hippocampal neurons and their protein expression. I am learning the new technique of imaging tissue and carrying out analysis of the protein expression. Luckily, I am working with a very helpful PhD student who has experience in imaging.

Why are we looking at protein expression in the hippocampus? In research, you are always looking for patterns. We have tissue samples from “normal” controls and from patients who had Alzheimer’s Disease (AD). Throughout the imaging and analysis, we are blind to which tissue came from which type of patient, but after we have our data, we will look for patterns that can separate out the AD samples from the controls. Any significant differences in the protein expression we find may be biomarkers for AD and/or reveal novel pathological mechanisms involved in AD. Of course, the long-term goal is to help treat people who have or will develop AD and aid in early detection.

My new lab rotation is a nice change of pace after a refreshing trip home. I am very fortunate to be in this city with many opportunities to work beside brilliant scientists. My next steps are to tackle these new lab techniques and immerse myself into the huge amount of information on AD that already exists. Hopefully I will be adding to the collection of knowledge on this disease, creating positive changes for others.

12. May 2014 · Comments Off · Categories: brainbow, BU, PhD

All OD3s are officially on the cusp on changes, challenges, and rewards. In a few days, we will receive our scores for the Part I National Board Exam of Optometry – i.e. find out if we passed! Then in a few weeks, my classmates will start their first 4th year rotation with a whole year of full time clinical experience ahead of them. Finally, in a few weeks, I will be diving full time into the fish lab. It all feels very final. People are taking more pictures than even the normal amount, organizing potlucks with friends that will be missed, and, of course, fitting in some studying time for final exams.

On top of these big transitions, I am moving again. Luckily for myself, my move is only going to happen once for at least a year, whereas the new OD4s will move up to 4 times in one year! It’s an exciting experience, though, if you choose to travel for your clinical site rotations. You get to see 4 different parts of the country (and maybe even another country!) that you might not get to see any other time in your career.

I am leaving the Symphony area of Boston. I will miss the Berklee College of Music students around my building and in the neighboring buildings. It gives me pleasure to listen to a violin or an opera singer outside my window on a sunny afternoon. I hope their culture has rubbed off on my optometric brain a bit. It’s also been secretly comforting to see the dedicated cello players wheeling their instruments through the crowded Mass Ave sidewalks. I’ve got to hand it to them – they’ve got confidence and nimbleness. But it has come time to leave this eclectic musical community. My pet companion and I must be moving on to bigger, brighter, and cheaper spaces.

Regarding the fish lab, the most interesting fish I can tell you about right now is called the Brainbow zebrafish. This genetically engineered fish has fluorescent neurons (they glow under the right light in the microscope). Fluorescent cells are commonly used in research, like cells expressing Green Fluorescent Protein (GFP), but this fish is unique. The fluorescent gene in its cells undergoes variable expression, randomly, in different lineages of dividing cells. This means that some fluoresce green, some yellow, red, cyan, pink, and so on. This is where it got its name – the whole brain can look like a rainbow of colors. Why this is so entertaining to look at is obvious, but it is also useful because a whole line of cells that derived from a single cell stays the exact same color. Therefore, you can use the unique colors to trace back where the progenitor cell originated. So far, I have acquired my own population of Brainbows (which look pink to the naked eye) and I hope to use them in experiments as I start my full time lab work this summer.

It is finally green, white, pink, purple, and many other colors in Boston as well! Enjoy the springtime rainbow of colors, friends. Until next time.. 

09. April 2014 · Comments Off · Categories: PhD

Happy life after Part one boards, OD3s! Our class spent a challenging two days at the Hynes Convention Center answering 500 questions over a total of 14 hours of testing. It was a monumental endeavor with a glorious relief once we were done. The National Board of Examiners in Optometry (NBEO) will not release our scores until May, but I think everyone is thankful to have this lull of peace before we have to face our scores. The part one board exam focuses on didactic knowledge from our three years of optometry school thus far. I must say that our professors did a great job at covering all the topics that the board exam expected us to know, and I hope that we all remembered what we had learned so long ago!

Now, our remaining didactic education is including more broad public health topics and refining our clinic decision-making process. For instance, our lecture in pediatrics this week was on the prevalence of amblyopia worldwide, holding a steady 3% in all countries including the U.S., with the exception of the Scandinavian countries. We learned that the unique success of the Scandinavian population in lowering their amblyopia prevalence to only 0.2% is due to their public health education for parents, pediatricians, and teachers.

Amblyopia is an integral part of an optometrist’s diagnostic responsibilities, especially in the pediatric population. In cases of high refractive error, different refractive errors between the eyes, strabismus (an eye turn), or for any other reason that perfect visual input to an eye is blocked, a permanent reduction in the best vision that eye can have occurs if not fixed in early childhood. This permanent, poor vision is called amblyopia. The great importance of detecting amblyopia when a child is young (before 8 years old) is due to the treatments available. Amblyopia is both preventable and curable in this critical time period and most of the time the treatment is simply a pair of glasses.

It is common knowledge that when reading articles or listening to news segments, you can only trust the information as much as you trust the source. Nowadays, clinicians stray away from “clinical knowledge” that is passed around by word of mouth. Instead, they rely on peer-reviewed information, which they can trust to have passed rigorous scrutiny. In lecture, we discussed the importance of remaining skeptical yourself even when reading these peer-reviewed “evidence-based” articles. There will always be bad experiments, bad data, and dishonest investigators that somehow make it through to publication. An important aspect of practicing as a clinician is the lifelong learning process you will undertake. You must rely on your own foundation of knowledge and critical analysis skills to determine what new information is trustworthy. The field of optometry is continuously growing in information that provides exciting new opportunities, but you must remain true to your own mental compass.

I hope everyone enjoys the weather this weekend, it is starting to look like spring!

20. February 2014 · Comments Off · Categories: PhD · Tags: , , ,

Today, my cat, Grady, is meeting his potential roommate, a Beagle-Dachshund mix I will call “Al” to protect his identity. Grady and I are looking to move to an apartment with roommates next year in order to save on rent, gain some more living space, and gain some new friends. We’re still in the beginning of the roommate/apartment hunting process, but today’s meeting will tell us if Al is going to fit with us or if we need to keep looking.

I went through the Boston University housing website to post that I am entering BU as a PhD student next year, and I’m looking for a roommate. Al’s mother responded to my post that she is looking for a roommate in the same area, and is also a PhD student. The next thing we need to determine is whether our fur babies will get along.

My current apartment is under construction in the true Boston fashion of old, old buildings needing repair. Therefore, this weekend Grady is hiding out at my best friend’s studio in Kenmore Square. Grady is hiding because pets are not allowed at my best friend’s building. And because I want Grady to meet Al on Grady’s turf, to give us the maximum chance of Grady not hissing at Al, Al is coming over to the studio as well (the one where pets are not allowed).

Is everyone’s life in Boston this convoluted? I like to think so. Actually, I’ve been very lucky in Boston so far. These old Boston buildings are prone to water leaks, fires, and other natural disasters that occur over time. Unfortunately, a fire just occurred this week in the apartment of some NECO students. Our student council immediately started a donation drive to help these students get back on their feet. The NECO community is great at supporting their students when crises like this occur. They offer housing, donations, new furniture, taking class notes for them, and other necessities of life to help our students recover.

As I have watched friends apply to other graduate programs at large institutions, I’ve seen the benefit of such a small NECO community. From misspelled names on official documents to glitches in the electronic application process, small institutions like NECO seem to be able to consider each student as a person rather than a potential tuition check. At the larger universities and colleges, they don’t seem to be able to offer their students the same personal attention and respect that everyone deserves.

T-minus 45 minutes until “Al” arrives. I will be posting an update on the colliding of fur babies soon. Hopefully with lots of happy pictures of a new roommate family! Have a great week.


17. January 2014 · Comments Off · Categories: PhD

Welcome back from the holidays, everyone! My winter break in Florida was very successful. I saw all my family and friends I wanted to see and even some dolphins! Now I am back to school, clinic, and boards prep.

I love my new spring schedule. I have three absolutely packed days-Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday- but then I am usually free for most of the rest of the week. This gives me time to study on my own schedule for classes and boards.

No one can study all the time. We all need breaks every few hours. Lately I have taken up baking as my form of break time. I’ve made (from scratch) bread, oatmeal chocolate chip cookies, and blueberry scones so far. They are the perfect way for me to relax, satisfy my hunger, and share with friends and neighbors.

When I was visiting my family over break and sharing my new baking hobby with my cousin’s wife, she shared with me how her grandparents had amazing cooking abilities and that she’d wished those abilities had been passed onto her. I also have regrets about not learning more skills and knowledge from my family members before they passed away. Things our grandparents did from memory in their daily life can easily be lost in time if we are not careful to preserve them.

Then I had the idea that we should be sharing family recipes between bloodlines and generations. Although a specific recipe from my family may be forgotten, a borrowed one from a friend’s family can be just as cherished. In fact, the recipe I use for bread and scones came from a close friend’s grandmother.

Another highlight to my break was spending time with my grandma from Oregon while she was in Florida. She is 81 years old and very sharp. She likes reading, doing word searches, drinking tea, and sometimes even mows her own lawn. She also has age-related macular degeneration, an eye disease I’ve learned much about in optometry school. She visits the best doctors in Portland and she is always learning about future treatments and new research on AMD on her own.

We went to a large chain bookstore in Florida and were browsing around. I came across the large print books section in the store. It was a tiny section with limited choices, but I was surprised the bookstore even carried some large print books. I was curious if my grandma had noticed it and ran over to tell her. She had not seen it and was very interested. She ended up picking out a large print book written by a medical doctor that she would read on the plane ride home.

I felt so good helping my grandma find an interesting book in large print that would be easier for her to read. I know she gets the best medical care from her doctors, but sometimes lifestyle alterations can be overlooked. I’m very thankful that my low vision course at NECO has enabled me to help people like my grandma function better in order to enjoy the most out of life.

08. December 2013 · Comments Off · Categories: PhD

I’m about two weeks away from heading back to Florida for winter break. My break is going to be just about as busy as my fall semester has been, but this is how I live now. I tend to get very overwhelmed when my busy schedule reaches a new peak, but after a while, I adjust and can function pretty normally. I usually have the opinion that I’m working to my maximum capacity until more things are added to my plate. When I meet those new demands, I have a new definition of working to my maximum. I suppose this means there is no maximum, and we just adjust to what we’re given.

This vicious cycle has been occurring since I started my first year at NECO, forcing me to be a productive student and a decently valuable contributor to my clinic sites (thank you, NECO, I would not have the energy if you weren’t forcing me). Continuing my tradition, I am going to bring my winter break of 14 days to a new level of “packed.” I will be visiting family in three different parts of the sunshine state and taking a three day road trip to north Georgia so I can see a dear friend get married in a wooded wonderland. It will be an exhausting trip as usual, but worth it to see my parents, sister, my mother’s extensive family, father’s family down from Oregon, and to see my best friend from 6th grade get married.

Then, when I return to Boston in January, it will be my last semester where I am enrolled in courses at NECO. After a handful of classes, one elective, two days of clinic per week, and taking Part I Boards in the spring, I’m off to Boston University. I will officially be enrolled as a fulltime PhD student. I’m excited to take the graduate courses in my department of Anatomy and Neurobiology. The courses are focused on critical thinking and analysis, answering “why” questions, and using other reasoning techniques. Evidence-based science is stringent, but the most accurate way to answer our questions. Research has zero tolerance for assumptions or loopholes, to the best of human ability. Of course mistakes are made and retractions are needed sometimes, but science is the best method we have to try to improve the human quality of life.

But before I get to 2014, these next couple weeks are about studying, getting through final exams, completing my last clinic days at my current sites, and packing to go home!