Undergraduate research is one of the great opportunities available to students at the University of Iowa, as we are a research one university, and student involvement in the Iowa Center for Research by Undergraduates is a great way to learn experientially and also earn honors credit. One of the most involved researchers here is a member of Honors at Iowa: Lance Heady. Lance’s research focuses on using a Caenorhabditis elegans (worm) model of HD to study the effectiveness of a novel class of neuroprotective compounds with Dr. Andrew Pieper of the UIHC Department of Psychiatry. In layman’s terms, Lance’s overall goal is to aid in the discovery of new treatment strategies for Huntington’s Disease.
Aside from his role as an ICRU Fellow, Lance is also an ICRU Ambassador who helps promote undergraduate research on campus. He also helped start the online undergraduate research magazine, Did You Know?, which highlights undergraduate students’ involvement in research and creative projects. Most impressively, Lance was recently awarded a generous research fellowship from the Huntington’s Disease Society of America. Lance is the RA of the STEM Scholars LLC in Petersen Hall and is on the UI Research Council. In his free time his is a competitive ballroom dancer, frequent visitor of Lindsay Marshall‘s office, and avid watcher of Grey’s Anatomy. With such an interesting background, let’s take a look into a day in the life of Lance Heady and see what research looks like.
(Lance looking sharp.)
Huntington’s disease (HD) is a fatal genetic disorder that causes progressive dysfunction and death of nerve cells in the brain. An estimated 30,000 Americans are currently symptomatic with HD, and another 200,000 are at risk for developing the disease. The new P7C3 class of neuroprotective molecules has been shown to protect against cell death in multiple animal models of human neurodegeneration, including Parkinson’s disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and traumatic brain injury. Here, we examine the efficacy of P7C3 neuroprotective compounds in a Caenorhabditis elegans (C. elegans) worm model of Huntington’s disease. This worm model mimics the human disease by showing the same increased levels of protein aggregation, as well as associated behavioral deficits. The overall goal is to foster development of new treatment strategies for patients suffering from Huntington’s disease.
8:52 PM Welcomed to the lab by the soft sound of the incubating shaker as it continues to grow the bacteria left last night in beakers of nutritious food. At least nutritious for the bacteria, the mixture actually doesn’t smell good at all not to mention the smell of the growing bacteria.
9:00 PM The bacteria have now been growing for approximately 12 hours and can be centrifuged (a machine that spins things really fast to collect particles in the mixture) to collect all of the bacteria that were produced during this time.
9:03 PM Accidentally got some of the bacteria on my arm and proceeded to soak my arm in ethanol in the hope to kill it. Unfortunately this bacteria is resistant to most antibiotics so I’m sometimes a bit paranoid about getting it on myself.
(The collected bacteria ready to be put in the fridge. Yes it does smell.)
9:10 PM Bacteria is all collected and stored in the fridge (I promise it’s a separate one from the fridge that holds the human food). This bacteria will hopefully last the duration of the experiment.
9:13 PM Some of the new bacteria has been diluted with water in preparation to be spread on agar plates. Agar plates are just this Jello like substance in which I grow my C. elegans.
9:25 PM Stacks of agar plates are now prepared for the experiment and ready to go into the large incubator so that the bacteria can grow.
(All of the agar plates made and ready for this round of experiments.)
8:00 AM The plates are full of fully grown bacteria and ready for the worms (C. elegans).
8:30 AM The C. elegans are plated and ready to grow for the experiment.
7:15 PM The C. elegans are now in the adult stage of their life cycle and are producing eggs which are what I want to collect.
7:20 PM The bleaching process begins to dissolve the bodies of the adult worms and to collect the eggs which are protected from the bleach by a layer of tissue. The tubes of bleach and worms are shaken until most of the adult worms are dissolved and only the eggs are visible.
The reason the worms are bleached is because this creates a synchronized group of worms so that they are all the same age so that when the experiment is over we can compare all of the worms to each other.
7:45 PM After several rounds of washing the eggs are clean of any remaining bleach so that they are able to hatch normally.
8:00 PM The eggs have been divided into tubes and the eggs are treated with our chemical in varying concentrations (1 uM, 3 uM, 10 uM) along with the vehicle which dissolves the chemical to allow for treatment. The tubes of eggs are then allowed to rock overnight.
(This is approximately 1.0 gram of our neuroprotective compound.)
8:23 AM Arrive to the lab and the eggs which were left to rock and incubate in our chemical are now hatched and ready to be plated!
(On the left is the large incubator kept at 20°C where the work [C. elegans] cultures are kept while they are growing. It’s the size of a large fridge. On the right small incubator kept at 25°C where all of the experiments are kept while they are running. It’s about the size of a mini-fridge.)
(This is the microscope I spend most of my time at. It is used to take the pictures at the end of the experiment and to count the C. elegans for appropriate plating.)
8:30 AM The medium in which the worms will live for the rest of their lives is made with the appropriate amount of bacteria and compound.
8:35 AM Worms are counted and placed in corresponding wells of the plate.
8:45 AM Worms are fully plated and back in the incubator in which they will grow for three more days.
Tuesday Night, Wednesday, and Thursday
Worms are checked periodically (approximately every 12 hours) to ensure that nothing has gone wrong with the experiment and that all is going well.
Prep work is done for the next round of experiments, more plates and media are made and more bacteria grown.
9:15 AM The last check of the worms to ensure they are growing properly and without problem.
6:00 PM Set up begins for the picture taking of the worms so that the individual aggregates of the worms can be counted. This includes generating random numbers for which the pictures can be named so that they can be counted without bias later. The anesthesia for the worms is made to the correct concentration. The worms are then ready for their big day, time for their glamour shots and to determine if our compound actually protects against protein aggregation. This is always the most nerve wracking part as I always try to compare the different groups while the worms are under the microscope.
6:30 PM The picture taking commences!
8:45 PM Half way through taking all the pictures of the worms!!!
11:22 PM The pictures are finally all done and the images are converted to files that are usable.
Analysis of the pictures begin, each individual aggregate must be counted on all of the worms and then the data can be analyzed. This can take up to a week to complete the analysis of all of the pictures from one experiment.
(The excel file of all of the worms and their individual aggregate counts.)
(The final result of the aggregate counting and the resulting data analysis. This experiment has shown that our compound does in fact have the ability to protect against the protein aggregation observed in the untreated worms.)
By Lance Heady, Junior
Areas of Study: Biochemistry & Neurobiology
Hometown: Quincy, Illinois