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“How are you?”

 

“Good”

 

In American culture, the reflexive response of “good” has become a societal script. An unspoken agreement to keep personal struggles hidden behind a facade of general well-being. Yet, behind this seemingly innocent exchange lies a deeper truth – a truth shaped by my journey living with chronic pain.

 

For over a decade, I have navigated a world where my pain was kept in a shadow. But when brought to light while seeking treatment, I was met with a healthcare provider who dismissed my pain. Skeptical, this encounter left me feeling unheard and invalidated. This encounter catalyzed my commitment to fostering a healthcare system founded on compassion and understanding, all while rooted in scientific discovery.

 

My academic journey at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is a deliberate exploration of the tools required to bridge the gaps between patient narratives and medical understanding. While studying neuroscience, biology, and chemistry, I developed an interest in the intricacies of the scientific method and the potential it holds to unravel the mysteries of the human brain.

 

To solidify my foundation in neuroscience, I joined the Koehler Laboratory in the Department of Anesthesia and Critical Care Medicine at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, where I work on the Translational Outcomes Project in Neurotrauma. There, I learned how to handle animal models, induce traumatic brain injuries and intracerebral hemorrhage, collect neural tissue, and stain sliced tissue. Additionally, I used fluorescence and confocal microscopy to capture detailed snapshots of neural sections. Embracing the intersection of technology and research, I expanded my proficiency by coding macros with ImageJ and Fiji, which helped me analyze large datasets precisely and efficiently. These multifaceted skills enable me to contribute to the consortium’s work, advancing the scientific understanding of traumatic brain injuries.

 

These skills helped me seamlessly join the Abraham Laboratory at the Research Technology Institute (RTI) International, an independent nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the human condition. Situated within the Center for Drug Discovery in the Discovery Sciences Unit, the Abraham Laboratory aims to develop a method to probe how cocaine alters the function of mitochondria in the brain in vivo using genetically encoded fluorescent sensors and viral CRISPR strategies. This work will lead to the rapid development of a novel pharmacological treatment to decrease the prevalence of substance disorders.

 

Since joining as a Karen M. Gil intern, I have contributed to the foundational stages of this project by determining the neural and behavioral effects of a Micu1-targeting drug (Mcui4) in mice. To do so, I administered intraperitoneal injections of cocaine, Mcui4, and vehicle (10% dimethylsulfoxide in saline) to mice in order to evaluate anxiety-like and locomotor behavior with the elevated plus maze (EPM) paradigm and locomotor activity chambers, respectively. Both acute and chronic drug treatment were modeled. Overall, my findings show that the inhibition of Micu1 with Mcui4 did not alter anxiety-like or locomotor behaviors, and males and females exhibited similar responses to the behavioral tests. Mcui4 appeared well-tolerated by both sexes and did not produce gross locomotor or behavioral disruptions. And over time, repeated cocaine or Mcui4 treatment did not significantly affect animal weights.

 

As I progress into the next phase of research in the Abraham Laboratory, I remain mindful that every data point, injection administered, and observation made is a step closer to positively impacting individuals with substance use disorders. I now aim to utilize immunohistochemistry and photometry to validate the direct influence of Mcui4 in modulating neural mitochondrial activities within neuronal tissues. I will also use CRISPR technology to demonstrate the specificity of the Micu1-targeting drug and delineate its specific effects on reward learning processes through additional behavioral paradigms.

 

My journey toward becoming a medical scientist is propelled by a deep-rooted commitment to applying a patient-centered approach to research. The question “How are you?” serves as a constant reminder of the individuals at the heart of scientific inquiry—individuals with unique stories, challenges, and aspirations.

 

Through my work within a public health laboratory at the UNC School of Medicine Institute for Global Health and Infectious Diseases, I am dedicated to amplifying the narratives of underrepresented minorities, particularly those incarcerated and at high risk for contracting HIV. In this unique space, I’ve witnessed the power of empathy within research. This project gives previously incarcerated individuals a safe space to speak out about their experiences within the healthcare system. And by reading through interview transcripts, I can emphasize the urgency to address systemic issues.

 

In conclusion, my journey from navigating suppressed narratives in healthcare to actively contributing to cutting-edge neuroscience research has reinforced my commitment to fostering a medical system grounded in understanding. Scientific exploration is not solely about decoding unknown complexities. It is about translating that knowledge into tangible improvements for the greater good.

 

So, let me ask, how are you?

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