Friday, June 28, 2013

Congrats, Feng!

Today, our senior graduate student Feng defended his dissertation and earned his doctorate degree!


For those who are unfamiliar with the terminology, a dissertation is the culmination of a graduate student's research - a lengthy essay that explains the methodology, results, and significance of his work.  The graduate student's "defense" is a presentation of that work in front of a committee that is familiar with his field of study.

My lab mates and I sat in to watch Feng's public presentation before his closed Q&A session with the committee. I thought he did a wonderful job. Feng has done some great work here at UH, and he is definitely an example to me of dedication to your work and how much it pays off in the end!

Afterwards, we threw him a surprise party to celebrate his new Ph.D.

My cupcakes melted a little on the commute in to campus.
Feng will stay with us for two more months, and then he's off to Stanford for his post-doc! Can't wait to hear about all the great work he'll be doing there. I know all of us so are excited for him :)

Friday, June 21, 2013

Flashback Friday

Behavioral testing is temporarily on hold as we wait for our new protocols to be approved. But, I've been keeping busy with lots of reading and writing --- helping Laura with the Autism grant she's writing and helping Feng edit and organize his dissertation!

Today, however, I'd like to travel back in time to Saturday, June 1, to the annual Biology of Behavior Retreat. The Ziburkus lab is part of the Biology of Behavior Institute (BoBI) at UH, so we were all invited to the annual retreat at the Houston Arboretum.

I had a really good time learning about all the interesting projects going on in different labs right now, and I also got to meet several of the undergraduates who are in the SURF program with me this summer.

Feng, Laura, and I in front of Feng's poster presentation!

I had also never been to the arboretum before, despite living in Houston for ten years now! I found a nice little bench surrounded by flowers to sit and have my lunch, and I had some butterfly visitors!

If anyone can identify this pretty butterfly, please comment and let me know!

Overall, it was an enjoyable day, and I was definitely inspired by the passion the speakers had for their respective work.

Happy Friday, everyone!

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Being wrong never felt so right

As part of the SURF program, I attend weekly "brown bag" lectures with my fellow undergraduate researchers. Because we all have such diverse interests (from testing cancer treatment to translating Homer!), the sessions are usually designed to address broad topics that can apply to all disciplines.

This week, Dr. Jeremy May, Assistant Professor of Chemistry, talked to us about that great, mysterious entity known as . . . research ethics.

Reading "The Responsible Researcher" before Dr. May's lecture.

For the most part, ethics in the sciences are the same as those in business, politics, education, and just life in general. Don't lie. Don't cheat. Be a conscientious citizen and a good neighbor.

However, because we work on the frontiers of our respective fields, scientists do face unique challenges.

For example, in the 1800s, the French mathematician Urbain Le Verrier argued that Mercury's strange orbit had to be caused by the gravitational force of another celestial object somewhere between Mercury and the Sun. Le Verrier named his hypothetical planet Vulcan and soon received news from other astronomers of Vulcan sightings, seemingly confirming his hypothesis. But, almost 40 years after Le Verrier's death, Albert Einstein's theory of general relativity successfully explained Mercury's orbit and disproved the existence of Vulcan. (more disproven theories here)

Urbain Le Verrier, 1811-1877

Was Le Verrier wrong? Yes. But his science was still good. In his time, he was able to offer the best explanation for Mercury's behavior with the tools at his disposal. He did not fabricate, falsify, or plagiarize; he was simply wrong. And it took 40 years and a revolutionary mind to challenge Le Verrier's hypothesis.

This was the crux of Dr. May's lecture: wrongness is an integral and healthy part of the experimental process. As young researchers, we cannot be afraid to get negative results, to learn something that completely shatters our hypothesis, or to be stumped over and over again by Nature as we attempt to unravel her secrets.

Dr. May's message really spoke to me this week, as I am currently reviewing data from our preliminary behavioral tests, and I am discovering previously unnoticed flaws in our experimental design. In a perfect world I would make no mistakes, but then again, a perfect world would have no need for scientists! Until then, I am embracing my wrongness, learning from my mistakes, and trying, trying again!

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

An introduction


My name is Cara Riffe, and I am a rising sophomore studying biology here at the University of Houston.

Last semester, thanks to my Tier One scholarship and UH's amazing faculty and staff, I joined Dr. Jokubas Ziburkus' neuroscience lab as an undergraduate research assistant. I was assigned to work with graduate students to design and carry out an experiment to test a new drug treatment for epilepsy.

I learned that although research is often demanding, it is also highly rewarding. So, I have decided to continue my work with UH's Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF). As a SURF participant, I will work full time in the lab, as well as attend weekly seminars hosted by SURF in the Honors College. My SURF experience will culminate at Undergraduate Research Day in October, where I will present a poster on my research.

I am excited to have this opportunity to focus exclusively on my project without academic classes competing for my time and attention. This blog will document my summer experiences in the lab, and I hope to include lots of pictures and maybe even some videos!

My Project

Severe myoclonic epilepsy in infancy, commonly known as Dravet syndrome (DS), is a form of childhood epilepsy in which affected children suffer from seizures, loss of motor control, and social and cognitive dysfunctions. The Ziburkus lab has shown promising results in controlling seizures in DS mouse models through the use of a novel pharmaceutical. 

Working in collaboration with and under the supervision of Dr. Ziburkus and graduate students Feng Gu and Laura Montier, I will help test the behavioral effects of this drug on DS. We will run social and learning tests on mice that have either recieved treatment or have been left untreated. The data we collect through this testing will help elucidate the link between the seizures early in life and the cognitive impairment later in life that is observed in those that suffer from DS. Our hope is that, by decreasing the adolescent seizures associated with DS, the novel drug treatment will also save the mice’s cognitive function. Overall, the study is highly translatable and, if successful, could lead towards additional studies in human DS patients.

Thank you for reading and please subscribe if you are interested in continuing with me through the world of neuroscience!