My research year is absolutely flying by. I’ve accomplished so many things already: submitted two abstracts to a symposium and helped get a case study published, made major progress on my primary project using cerebrospinal fluid (details to come), learned how to do two different (rodent) surgical procedures and started work on developing a protocol for a third, and found (legit!) reasons to purchase an obscene number of scientific kits. I’ve also been having a positively fabulous time with my darling labmates – who loooooove being referred to as “darling,” I assure you – who are all pre-meds and seem to be convinced that I know things! I do my best to not prove them wrong. I mostly succeed. There have definitely been some bad days where science attacks with a vengeance and everything is the worst, but the vast majority of my experience has been awesome accompanied by awesome with a side of awesome.
The primary project I’m working on that is truly “my baby” is the use of digital droplet PCR, or “fancy pants PCR” as I like to think of it, to detect cell-free tumor DNA in the cerebrospinal fluid (CSF). The idea is to be able to use something as simple as a lumbar puncture to characterize a brain tumor without having to do a biopsy (which, in the brain, is somewhat less than ideal.) Additionally, we’re hoping we can use this method to monitor response of brain tumors to treatment with serial lumbar punctures in addition to the usual serial imaging. We’re still in the way-early stages, but have successfully detected tumor DNA in CSF, woohoo! I’ve also learned how to design PCR assays myself, which is pretty sweet. There have been lots of roadblocks that we’re still working to overcome (free-floating tumor DNA is not exactly spewing forth like a fountain; the stuff is rare), but we’re definitely making our way forward.
I’m also helping out with our lab’s efforts to generate a mouse model of DIPG, a rare pediatric brain tumor that has a downright depressing prognosis. We’ve recently been successful in generating tumors in the correct region of the brain, the pons, but not with an ideal cell line (doesn’t very closely resemble the genetics of actual human DIPG.) We’re getting there! I had a teeny tiny bit of exposure to rodent surgery as an undergrad, but it’s wild to do these procedures now that I’ve been in on real-deal human surgery. Let’s just say I’ve become mildly spoiled from my prior experiences.
In addition to my work in the lab, there have been multiple neurosurgery faculty members who have been kind enough to have me join them in clinic on a regular basis. It’s wonderful to not be totally removed from the clinical environment and to continue expanding my knowledge of the field I will be joining. I also regularly attend our brain tumor board on Friday mornings which is the ultimate nerdy good time. Faculty members from neuro-oncology, neurosurgery, radiation oncology, neuroradiology, and neuropathology (and I’m undoubtedly forgetting someone) all meet together to discuss the best path forward for patients with CNS tumors. I’ve already noticed fewer things going over my head (though there are certainly still plenty) than at the beginning of the year when I first started attending weekly. It’s amazing how you start picking up lingo just by hearing it frequently.
In summary, my only complaint is that the year is going by too quickly – AHHHHH!