Today marks the end of the 2019 Tourette Syndrome Awareness Month. This post is probably going to be very introspective, and at times, hard on myself. Especially since I just watched like 23149 motivational speeches on YouTube.
I’ve relied on my smarts and a-little-above-average memory to succeed in high school. In high school, I didn’t need to work hard to achieve things and eventually attend my dream college. Brown was definitely harder because everyone was smart and capable, but I still managed to pull through and not work my butt off. Just to give you an idea, Brown’s grading system does not include pluses or minuses, so an A- gets rounded up to an A, and a B+ gets rounded down to a B. In my first organic chemistry class, I scored 601 points when 600 points was the grade cutoff for an A. Yes, I barely pulled through.
Now I’m in graduate school, pursuing a PhD in Neuroscience, and I was hit so hard by reality. Grad school does not center around passion; it requires a combination of passion and diligence/grit to succeed. I’m absolutely not used to this culture that demands hard work, and I’ve been struggling since I matriculated.
The truth is: I suck at working hard, and it’s something I’m still learning how to do. I was watching a motivational video on YouTube by a person named Eric Thomas, and one of the things he said really struck me. To paraphrase, Thomas said we always want guarantees made to us by other people, like 30-day money-back guarantees from stores. But we have never had the guts to make guarantees to ourselves. We’ve never demanded “money back” from ourselves when we fail, and we are not able to look in the mirror and say “You let you down,” and then demand an explanation from ourselves.
Thomas’s statement resonated with me because I have trouble looking in mirrors. All I see is an overweight boy who likes to blame everyone else for his own lack of commitment. I see someone who hasn’t yet developed the grit necessary to succeed in school and in life. I see a failure.
I genuinely want to do better and be better. I want to work hard and persevere. I want to live up to my fullest potential and then some. I do realize that Eric Thomas’s words sting, but it is precisely because of the pain that I know they’re true. I am also not expecting myself to pull a 180-degree turn overnight; change is slow, complicated, and effortful, which is why I am asking for encouragement as I work on improving myself physically and mentally. I don’t want people saying I’m fine just the way I am because I’ve made a commitment to bettering myself, and I would much prefer people being truthful than people trying to appease me.
I really hope you’ll help me out, and I look forward to a journey filled with self-improvement. I want to recognize a better person when I look into the mirror.
This is going to be a short and science-based entry. I’ll try my best to distill down the science to a level that (almost) everyone can comprehend!
When I applied to Emory for graduate studies, one of the school’s alluring features was its intensive commitment to research of neurodegenerative disease like Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s. An entire floor full of professors’ offices and laboratories was dedicated specifically to the multi-pronged approach to understand these diseases better.
The term “neurodegeneration” refers to a multitude of conditions in which the patient suffers from continued loss of neurons (brain cells). Usually, our neurons stay put, even though they might make or break connections with other neurons. But in the case of a Parkinson’s patient, for example, the neurons are dying by the masses, leaving certain activities like walking and cognition very impaired.
I started my first laboratory rotation in the lab of Dr. Chad Hales, who is an expert on Alzheimer’s disease and frontotemporal dementia—basically, two important neurodegenerative ailments. We know that there is a certain pattern to Alzheimers. In cases of Alzheimer’s, there is an accumulation of this protein called A-beta, and when they clump together, they “stick” to each other and create major disruptions in the cell’s wellness. After the A-beta protein accumulates, another protein called tau joins the ride. Tau is a key component of the cell’s skeleton, and when too much tau and A-beta aggregate, brain cells start dying steadily.
So far, our model looks like this: A-beta accumulation —> tau accumulation —> pathology.
We have very limited knowledge of why and how the A-beta accumulation causes tau to clump together, too. We suspected that there might be other proteins involved in this cascade. Chad’s colleague and lab-neighbor is Dr. Nick Seyfried, who uses fancy techniques to determine which proteins have the highest probability of sticking together. The ultimate hope is to identify these vulnerable proteins and gather insights into the domino effect in order to provide better treatments.
My project with Chad was straightforward. I would use the data collected by Nick and formulate hypotheses about which proteins might aggregate in the brain and contribute to pathology. I used a method called immunohistochemistry to test my hypotheses. Immunohistochemistry is basically using chemical approaches and antibodies to label a specific protein within the cell— in this case, we were looking at cut-up post mortem human brains, and antibodies for four proteins that Chad and I agreed on. We found that none of the proteins we suspected was actually aggregating.
While it was a disappointment to have an experiment completely “fail", the experience taught me that an unsatisfactory observations usually lead to the greatest hypotheses. I’m no longer rotating in Chad’s lab, but I will definitely stop by once in awhile to catch up.