Hoping to use the summer months to kick-start his senior research, junior Biochemistry major Nicholas Burt entered into an internship at Schepens Eye Research Institute in Boston. Working in the Young Lab under post-doc Maryam Alavi and investigator Petr Baranov, Burt was able to pick up biochemical lab methods and gain insight into the development and institution of novel ideas in the research field.
An affiliate of Harvard Medical School, Schepens has been developing new therapies and technologies used in the fight against blindness since its foundation in 1950, and has since become one of the largest dedicated eye research institutes in the country. "I've maintained an interest in eyes and eye research for quite some time, so it was a pleasure to be able to participate in it," said Nick.
The work being undertaken by the lab as a whole looks into treatments for retinal degeneration: the irreversible loss of retinal neurons that characterizes diseases such as glaucoma and macular degeneration. Their most recent work has focused on a class of molecules known as neurotrophic factors- proteins that aid in the growth and differentiation of nerve cells that have, in some cases, been found to rescue or protect these cells before they can be degraded. While research published by the lab in the past has focused on the induction of these molecules in the retina, Dr. Alavi looks instead to quantify them over time in both cultured cells and mouse models.
Starting shortly after Dr. Alavi herself, Burt first observed and mimicked the procedures before being assigned one of his own. This project employed a method called immunohistochemistry, in which molecules called antibodies are bound to the neurotrophic factors in question causing them to fluoresce under a microscope. The retinas of varying ages of mice were analyzed as such for a series of ten neurotrophic and growth factors. While only qualitative, the images generated are accompanied by an arsenal of qualitative methods, including ELISA, qPCR and western blotting. "With insight into the location, expression and fluctuation of these molecules throughout the mammalian lifespan, a link to certain retinal degenerative disorders could be made, aiding in diagnosis or treatment," said Burt.
The research itself aside, Burt spent the remainder of his time in the lab reorganizing the space and restocking solutions, while attending lectures held by the institution. On the pre-med track with a minor in psychology, he also found it important to log some clinical volunteer hours while at Schepens, and did so weekly at the Mass Eye & Ear Infirmary, a continuation of his work the previous summer. Being only part-time, these hours were supplemented with work in the ENC Registrar's Office and Animal Caretakers Team.
Nick has been invited to return to Schepens full-time this coming summer to continue research under Dr. Alavi, with the goal of finishing his senior project and presenting at the 2018 Academic Symposium. In the meantime, Burt plans to take the MCAT in May and will begin sending applications to medical schools in June. "I am confident that my experiences last summer will prove to be an asset when I begin the medical school interview process. The work I did and the people I met have certainly provided a new appreciation of the research side of medical science."