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University Honors Program

Biomedical Research and Mentoring Program


Experiential Learning Reflective Essay
Mohamed Elzarka
During the spring semester of my first year as a University of Cincinnati student, I had the
pleasure of participating in the University Honors Biomedical Research and Mentoring Program.
This program pairs honors students interested in pursuing undergraduate research opportunities with
faculty mentors in the UC College of Medicine and the Cincinnati Childrens Hospital Medical
Center. Through the program, I was paired with Dr. Tori Schaefer, Director of the Developmental
Disabilities Translational Research Center in the Psychiatry Division of CCHMC. Dr. Schaefers
research interests are in Fragile X Syndrome, Angelman Syndrome, and Autism Spectrum Disorders,
but during my time in the lab, the main focus was on Fragile X Syndrome. As part of the lab team, I
helped study how increased neuronal activation in the brain can cause some of the hyperactive,
overanxious phenotypes common to Fragile X patients and to the mouse model for the disease.
Moreover, I helped to examine how the effects of a repurposed drug meant originally for Generalized
Anxiety Disorder might be able to attenuate some of these effects by enhancing the activity of the
GABA(A) receptor to bring about more inhibition in the brain.
As part of the experience, I learned how to perform a number of laboratory procedures,
including perfusions, sample digestions, polymerase chain reactions, gel electrophoresis, slide
preparation, gavage animal dosing, intraperitoneal animal dosing, animal handling, microtome
slicing, and brain imaging. I also had the opportunity as part of my experience to present my research
on the relationship between audiogenic seizure susceptibility in the Fragile X mouse model and the
activation or lack thereof of the hippocampus at the 2015 University of Cincinnati Undergraduate
Research Conference. This was perhaps the most significant portion of this experience, as the
presentation that I gave afforded me the opportunity to unite the technical procedures that I was
familiarizing myself with in the lab and the scientific understanding that underlies those procedures
to answer a research question which can hopefully translate into real-world impact for affected
individuals down the road. I also enjoyed the conference because it allowed me to share what I had
been working on and learning about all semester with friends, family, faculty, students, and visitors.
By interacting with all of these different groups of people, I was forced to approach the explanations
I gave about my research in different ways, and thus was better able to synthesize my learning and
further develop my communication skills.
Overall, I worked for 15 weeks, with about 12-13 hours of time spent in the lab each week,
for a total of roughly 190 hours in the lab over the course of the semester. This exceeds the amount of
time that I had originally outlined on my proposal by an extra week, as I continued with the lab for an
extra week into the summer after the end of the semester. My experience also exceed my
expectations, as I was able to not only learn about technical approaches to solving problems,
scientific knowledge, and how the lab environment works as I expected, but was also able to link
these different areas of learning together and develop a more comprehensive understanding of how
research as a profession operates and how this aspect of medicine might fit into my career
aspirations. This heightened understanding, when paired with all that I learned about the specific
disease itself, made the experience incredibly worth my while. This was especially true because of
the nature of Fragile X Syndrome, which is both a neurological and genetic disease. Because of the
strong interest I have in both of these fields, as I mentioned in my proposal, coming into the lab every
day and working towards a better understanding of how to combat the effects of this disease was
enjoyable and rewarding. In addition, I know that many of the skills that I have learned during my
tenure in the lab will have translational value to the work that I perform in the lab environment in the
future, as some of the most basic skills like running PCR and gel electrophoresis are ubiquitous
across academic medical centers around the world. As I move forward to the Summer Undergraduate
Research Fellowship in Neuroscience (Neuro-SURF) in the next few months and then to more
research in the future, I know that the formative, immersive experience that Dr. Schaefer and the lab
team provided to me will be a wonderful asset and beneficial background in whatever kind of
research that I pursue.

As to the learning outcomes that I identified in my proposal and the progress that I made
towards these outcomes, I feel that despite not having accomplished all that I had set out to
accomplish as part of this proposal, I did achieve the majority of my goals and took strong steps
towards the accomplishment of other goals. I was successfully able to frame and develop the research
project on which I worked, though this was limited due to my short stay in the lab. My work, as a
first-year student, was mostly confined to the doing of researchespecially in the early days of the
semester. As my time spent in the lab progressed, though, I became more and more involved in the
actual research project. By better understanding work that had been previously been done and
connecting it to new work to which I contributed, I helped to further the research questions that the
lab was exploring. This manifested itself in my presentation at the 2015 Undergraduate Conference,
and in the discussions that I had with the rest of the lab team as I prepared for my presentation. Of
course, my presentation at the conference was also a wonderful opportunity to disseminate my
learning, and was an opportunity that I really appreciated. While I never had the opportunity to
formally connect my learning to previous research experiences like the one that I had with Dr. Rose, I
was also constantly making connections during the course of the research in my mind. Given the
chance to stay on with the lab, I would have loved to further explore the connectivity between seizure
localization and dentate gyrus activity. Given that such a personalized project did not have direct
relevance to the research questions being explored by the laboratory, though, this was not a project
for the school year when I had limited availability relative to the summer and was needed for other
important jobs in the lab.
The ability for me to really develop a level of competency that allowed me to develop the
research project came from a strong familiarity with the literature relevant to our research endeavors.
As I outlined in my proposal, the Trello system that Dr. Schaefer and the lab team set up was a
wonderful asset in familiarizing me with important details of the research. Moreover, the process that
I envisioned of reading up on important techniques, theories, and models was one that came quickly
to fruition as I was asked to read a number of articles as soon as I came into the lab. This is not out of
the ordinary for any new student or worker in a laboratory environment, so I was fairly anticipatory
of this being the case. There is great reason for such practice to be a stalwart as well, as the review
that I performed was immensely helpful in bringing me up to speed on what the lab was working on
fairly quickly. The one place in which I would have wished for a more developed experience with
regard to literature review, though, would be in the review article that I never had the chance to work
on. With a busy academic load including my first semester of organic chemistry and the duties I had
in the laboratory environment, it was difficult to find time to work on this separate project. It
definitely would have been great both for my personal development and for my resume to have
written such an article so early on, but there is definitely more than I can do in the future to pursue
this end. Perhaps I might even author a publication before I do a review.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, my research project this semester was instrumental in
shaping my world view beyond the laboratory environment. As I anticipated in my proposal before
the semester began, the perspective that I gained from my laboratory research work has helped me to
further direct my future career goals. My research experience in the Developmental Disabilities
Translational Research Center has reaffirmed my desire to pursue a career in research, and I have
doubled down on my efforts by recently accepting a position in an ophthalmology research lab over
the summer through the Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship in Neuroscience. I think that
perhaps the most pivotal moment that led to so many realizations for me was when I was preparing
my presentation that I was to share with other RaMP students. By thinking critically and reflecting on
what I was to share, I developed a better understanding of the implications of my stint in the Schaefer
lab. By extension, I found more clarity in how I might continue to pursue my goals and passions in
research moving forward. Specifically, my experience has impacted my development in that it has
guided me toward a career as a physician scientist. By talking with research faculty, graduate
students, and other older undergraduate students in the lab, I have gained a renewed energy to pursue
very competitive and time-consuming MD/PhD programs. In addition, I have learned of new
opportunities such as the Goldwater Scholarship that I will look to take advantage of in the coming
year to further my research career interests.

Thankfully, my work this semester was well grounded in the work that I had completed last
term. The different readings and theories which I explored in my proposal were very adept at
preparing me for this experience. While definitely not always consulted on a day-to-day basis, they
definitely had their place in preparing me success in achieving my goals. Specifically, the importance
of hands-on application that I explored with Dr. Lee Zane of Rider University made its mark
throughout the semester. Taking what I have learned in biology, chemistry, anatomy, physiology, and
neuroscience courses in the past, I was able to bring extra perspective and an additional dimension to
my learning by actively interacting with the research that helps contribute to these disciplines. In a
way, my involvement was like a positive feedback mechanism. The initial work that I put in while a
student in the classroom helped prepare me for my research work. This, in turn, gave me wonderful
insight into these fields that as Dr. Zane points out can only be had by active learning. Thus, by
participating in research, I furthered my learning in a cyclical manner, gaining from both the
classroom and the bench during the course of the semester.
More technical grounding was found in the research articles and chapters that I read prior to
beginning my research experience. Gaining expertise in previous research through literature review
of bench practice helped refined my skills when I started, and continued literature review during the
semester served to further sharpen them. Similarly, reading more about the patients affected by
Fragile X Syndrome fulfilled my goal of learning more about bench-to-bedside translation. In many
ways, the information that I read up on with regard to human patients gave great insight into the
efficacy of the mouse model that our lab used, and how it best modeled the human condition. The
reading that I did also helped me frame the research from a more easily-understood perspective when
sharing my research with othersnamely at the Undergraduate Research Conference.
Moving forward, I am excited to integrate what I have learned from this experience into the
remainder of my collegiate career and beyond. I have already seen a number of connections develop
between the work that I have done in the laboratory, and what I have been learning in the classroom.
Namely from my Genetics and Cell Biology class, I have been able to tie together lab procedures and
techniques with their biological basis. I hope to expand up such relationship-building in the future,
and know that my work will definitely have important ramifications in future classes in neuroscience,
anatomy, physiology, and developmental biology. Furthermore, I am excited to build upon my
research experience, and upon my reaffirmed interest in and passion for research, by exploring a new
research project this summer at the UC College of Medicine. The Summer Undergraduate Research
Fellowship in Neuroscience is a very selective opportunity, and one that I will look to take great
advantage of. I know that the preparation I have had in the Schaefer labmy first true bench lab
experiencewill greatly assist me in doing well over the summer. At the end of August, I hope to
have an even more developed poster than the one which I presented this April. To be able to once
again share my experience at a research symposium and receive questions and feedback about my
investigations will be a rewarding experience that I look to build towards.
To conclude, I would like to reiterate how wonderful an experience this Biomedical Research
and Mentoring Program has been for me. It was truly great to learn so much in such an active way
this semester, and to explore a possible career path for me down the line. I am glad to have
participated in the program not only for what I learned in the laboratory, but for the friends that I met,
the perspective I was given at different events and lectures, and for the opportunities that my
placement has created for me. Hopefully, future research endeavors and other Honors self-designed
experiences will be just as rewarding.