A passion for neuroscience results in a life-changing internship.
Alaina Jefferson ’22 was in seventh grade when her love for neuroscience began to bloom. She attended a science camp at Virginia Commonwealth University where students performed an experiment that allowed them to control each other's arms through electrical impulses. Fascinated by this experience, she researched everything she could about the topic.
At Steward, Upper School Science Teacher Kristen Householder has been integral to Alaina’s journey in discovering and developing her scientific skills and knowledge. And in summer 2021, a unique internship at the Wester Lab at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center solidified Alaina’s love of neuroscience.
Exploration and Discovery
During her seven-week internship, Alaina worked full-time in the lab alongside Dr. Jason Wester, the Principal Investigator and head of the lab, plus two graduate students and a research associate. The Wester Lab specializes in researching the organization, development, and function of different cortical neurons in mice that reside on the outer layers of the brain.
“I assisted with a research project that centers around the circuit formation of these neurons in the hippocampus, a region that plays a primary role in learning and memory,” explained Alaina. “We investigated how these neurons can change under different circumstances, thus resulting in a significant change in brain function.”
Alaina and her fellow researchers explored how a transcription factor (a protein that assists in transcribing DNA) called Satb2 plays a key role in how two distinct cell types form and differentiate from each other in their formation in the hippocampus of young mice.
“We utilized genetically modified mice that were lacking Satb2 in their hippocampal neurons; we identified these mice as ‘mutants,’” she explained. “I had the opportunity to look at the brain cells of both control and mutant mice under a large microscope, as well as readings of how these neurons ‘talk’ to one another.”
Alaina also performed her own stimulation experiments and compared the results of both control and mutant mice. Although seven weeks was not enough time to find statistically significant data, the group’s preliminary data show that the removal of Satb2 decreases the sizes of, and differentiation between, the two types of cells; these play different roles in learning and memory. The lab hopes to continue this research by investigating how the removal of Satb2 affects the behavior of mice rather than just the physiology of their neurons.
Challenges and Rewards
Before the internship, Alaina knew “next to nothing about neuroscience, and yet was expected to know information taught at the graduate level in order to understand the different projects in the lab,” she shared. “My mentor gave me her old undergrad neuroscience textbook and helped me familiarize myself with important terms and processes. She even taught me how to read professional research papers, another integral part to understanding the motivations behind the numerous projects in the lab.”
By the third week of her internship, Alaina felt more confident in her knowledge and abilities, “which in itself was a triumph for me,” she said. “It felt extremely rewarding to be able to understand these complex neurological concepts and employ them in my research.”
Looking Back, Thinking Ahead
In addition to learning how to create her own microscope slides and set up the solution prep needed for them, Alaina watched Dr. Wester perform surgeries, and she served as the audience during her mentor’s oral-defense practice for her thesis.
“It was interesting to see the various avenues research can take you as I interacted with my lab members on a daily basis,” she said. “It made me excited for the years to come as I embark on my own undergraduate and postgraduate research journey.”
Before the internship, Alaina, a recipient of Steward's Debbie Robson Merit Scholarship
, knew that she wanted to study neuroscience, and she was sure she wanted to follow the M.D. track to become a neurologist. Now, having experienced the world of neuroscience research, her future plans have shifted.
“I absolutely fell in love with this field of work; interestingly, this internship has made my future plans less certain,” she said. “As of right now, I’m hoping to do a dual M.D./Ph.D. program, but that’s subject to change. At the very least, I’m planning to major in neuroscience during my undergraduate years and volunteer my extra hours in a hospital or even in another neuroscience lab.”
A Published Author
At a final poster presentation at the culmination of her internship, Alaina and her lab partners presented their research, The effect of Satb2 on excitatory hippocampal circuit formation, to graduate students, professors, and other researchers who share her enthusiasm for neuroscience.
“In all honesty, I can’t believe I’m published,” she noted. “That was definitely not on my high school bucket list. I feel so overwhelmingly accomplished and proud, and extremely grateful that I was able to achieve this distinction. My parents sacrificed a lot to make sure that I had the ‘best science-y summer ever,’ and I cannot thank them enough.”
Alaina said, “I made sure that Ms. Householder was one of the first people I saw when I returned from my internship, and we talked for a couple of hours about my summer and her experiences in a lab as well. I’m so grateful for her support over the years. The pure joy she brought to every class demonstrated to me that science is truly what I wanted to pursue for the rest of my life.”