Research: Estrogens and the body

Let’s first start off by stating that I am a student in the Endocrinology and Animal Biosciences Program at Rutgers. The program I am in is very diverse and we study multiple aspects of endocrinology–or the study of hormones. There are professors here that study anything from cancer biology to the reproductive system to obesity. The lab that I am in focuses on estrogens. Specifically, I am interested in how estrogens control the body–what changes it can make to energy balance (consuming more or less than our body uses), thermoregulation (temperature control), and reproduction.

In addition, our lab is interested in how estrogen acts. Estrogen is considered to be a steroid hormone, which means that it is able to go into cells and bind to a receptor to become activated. However, there is now a new way that it can function–it does not have to go into the cell, but responds to receptors on the outside cell membrane. Furthermore, I am interested in something called KNDy neurons, which are neurons that produce three different genes: Kisspeptin, Neurokinin B, and Dynorphin. These neurons are located in the brain and are important for many body functions including those that respond to estrogen.

A relaxing day away from New Brunswick

For the past 12 years of my life, up until August of 2011, I lived in California. Moving to the East Coast was not only a big opportunity to branch out of my comfort zones in the living category, but also to explore new areas in the tri-state area. It is obvious that New Brunswick is nearly the midpoint between two large metropolitan cities-Philadelphia and New York City. However, there are also various other areas to consider, two of which have a much more laid-back feel (just what I like).

The first is Princeton, NJ. I first went here during the fall of 2011 and absolutely fell in love. It reminded me of a city near home, Old Towne Pasadena, with all the cute shops and delicious food. If you’re here, there are two places I highly recommend: the bent spoon, and Greene Street. The bent spoon is an ice cream shop that uses local ingredients, but also specializes in strange and enticing flavors. My favorite is the ricotta flavored ice cream, with local ricotta cheese from New Jersey. Other flavors I’ve seen include peach sriracha and chocolate hazelnut. It is one of the best ice cream shops I’ve been to. In addition, Greene Street is a consignment shop that is clean, well maintained, and quite large (there are 2 stories, one for women, and one for men). What I love about this consignment store is that is has not only cheap finds, but also luxury goods at a decent price point. I’ve seen anything from the likes of Gucci boots to Marc Jacob sunglasses to Celine purses for purchase. I feel that these types of consignment shops are difficult to find, and it’s nice to look around for hidden treasures.

Another quite similar area I frequent is a suburban area in Philadelphia called Chestnut Hill. It has the most amazing houses around–of course, I am biased, since I am used to Spanish-style California houses, but the old, rustic, grandiose feel of the houses are amazing. There is a small downtown area with local shops, surrounded by cobblestone roads. There is a great sit down place called Top of the Hill, and it is definitely a great place to grab a coffee and people watch.

While New Brunswick itself does offer a great atmosphere, lots of food options, and a bustling downtown area, it is sometimes nice to get out of the city without going into the two cities surrounding (Philly and NYC). Princeton and Chestnut Hill both offer a relaxing day out, especially when my California-self can survive the harsh East Coast weather.

A new language to learn

It is often difficult to recognize jargon in the everyday life of a graduate student. In lab all day, the terms polymerase chain reaction (PCR), nanodrop, and reverse transcription (RT) seem like mundane words used in a classroom. However, it is most difficult when you try to explain what you do to friends and family members outside the sciences. I first encountered this when attempting to explain what I hope to accomplish in my dissertation to a friend. What could be explained in one simple sentence to a science student took me twenty minutes to explain. Most of this explanation came not from not understanding the topics, but rather in explaining the terms.

It gets harder when you have to explain this in a different language. I am a Taiwanese-American. I speak Mandarin Chinese to my parents, but I don’t know how to read and write the language. When they ask me about the concepts I am interested in, it becomes a day long expedition. I say a word such as nanodrop and I just get blank stares. Then begins my explanation—and when you learn all these scientific terms in English, you realize how difficult it is to translate them (or even to attempt to explain them) in Chinese. It is difficult. It is like learning a new Chinese language.

And so it hit home. Jargon can be something great, but it can also be a huge hazard, for people outside your field, in understanding concepts. It is like learning a new language—it is not something that can be done in a day. Rather, it requires practice, reading, and even more reading.

The two types of teaching assistants

I had a few perceptions about teaching assistants when I was an undergraduate student. There were two distinct types of teaching assistant personalities that seemed alarmingly obvious. The first “type” of teaching assistant was the one who didn’t care, who just went to class to teach because they had to, and who graded word for word based on whatever teaching rubric they were given. Then, you had the T.A. who was completely, utterly, in love with the subject they were teaching–their enthusiasm showed in ways in which the word “passion” would be an understatement. These were the ones who wanted you to love the subject as much as they did, and when they were good at it, boy were they good. One in particular made me love American History–and believe me, I am a complete science nerd at heart.

My first class as a T.A., I decided I wanted to be the later. I wanted to show how passionate I was about learning to my students so that they would become excited and want to engage with me as well. Let me tell you–it’s exhausting. After a full day of lab, sometimes I don’t want to be that happy-go-lucky girl who has a giant smile on her face as I’m talking about human migration out of Africa. But I try. At the same time, being a T.A. has taught me that it is not easy. Time management is key–grading 75 papers each week isn’t something that can be done in one sitting. On the other side of the fence now, I realize how much T.A.’s put into their courses, even if they are the first type that I mentioned previously. I appreciate them so much more now, and especially the later who encourages, listens, and shows passion. I only hope that with time I can inspire my students as much as some of my T.A.’s did in the past.

Finding the needle in a haystack

Research methodology in the sciences can either make you jump up and down like you’ve won the lottery, or sit and cry (you already have enough of a headache, so banging your head on a table isn’t an option). There are those methods that are fail-safe and easy—the ones you don’t mind doing because you know they can’t go wrong. However, there are those methods that can be anything but right. The ones that make you cringe when you see the results, or become flabbergasted because you just don’t know what went wrong.

Sometimes it’s user error: maybe you added too much of this, didn’t add that, grabbed the wrong thing, pushed the incorrect button, broke something (it happens), the list goes on. Other times, it’s instrumentation: maybe it’s not been calibrated in a while or a sensor is malfunctioning. And at other times, it could simply be your sample. Either way, when things don’t go as you expect it, it becomes a game of cat-and-mouse, finding a needle in a haystack, whatever you have it. You have to hunt for what could be the root of this problem, this pure speck of evil that is getting in the way of you and your research.

However, let’s not overlook the beauty that research methodology has provided us. Yes, most of us complain about how tedious some of the work is, how long of an incubation time we have, how many problems we have with instrumentation. But let’s go back in time to before these techniques were discovered, before instruments were created. We would not be able to complete a fraction of all that science (as well as other fields) has offered. We would not be able to run DNA samples on a gel using electrophoresis in one hour, or extract RNA in half a day. We would not be able to perform all our animal studies, or measure blood samples. So while you’re banging your head (figuratively) on your desk, buried in frustration, think about all the good things research methodologies gives us—without it, you’d only be able to complete a fraction of all that you will accomplish during your time here at Rutgers.