Scholar's Diary: A Week at the NIH

by Nathan Harmer, 2018 PWIS scholar

Day 1

After a quick breakfast the day began with a meeting with officials from the NEI. The people we met were extremely friendly and had very interesting roles within the institute which were clearly defined during their presentations. A tour of the National Library Of Medicine proved fascinating with my highlight proving to be seeing the data banks in the basement of the building; however, the concept of graphic medicine also revealed itself to be a intriguing concept and had clearly been applied in an effective and clear way.

The presentation of my project proved once again nerve-racking, especially in the presence of NEI doctors who would have likely known more about the subjects covered my report than I did. The following presentations from Ms Solano and Mr Pearson were extremely fascinating and gave a flavour of the work involved in research. The conversation with Mr Ruiz following this also provided a different yet rather real insight into the process of progressing from undergraduate to doctorate with anecdotes and valuable past experience being conveyed to give a better picture of working in research. Following these presentations, I found the prospect of research, which prior to today I knew surprisingly little about, greatly appealing.

A metro train to Capitol Hill led us, myself and Mr Schwabe, to the offices of Congressman Jamie Raskin where we met his policy advisor, Ms Emma Norvell. Her position was particularly interesting and so discussing with her revealed a lot about the processes and workings of the Capitol. Following this a smooth tour was conducted Mr Chas Goldman whose knowledge of the Capitol proved to be a wealth bank for understanding the building and whose manner was kind and caring, as well as friendly, being prepared to go the extra mile to provide us with access to the gallery of the senate. Finally, the day concluded with a visit to the National Archives and during this I found the Declaration of Independence, Constitution of the United States and Bill of Rights a treat to see. It made me consider the effect sight has on the emotions that these documents, though they can be viewed online, could attract many visitors from around the world just that they may view the original. All in all today was an action-packed and enjoyable day and I can’t wait for the next one to come.

Day 2

After signing into the NIH once again breakfast came around which provided a delicious selection of food from which to choose. Following this, and a transfer to the NCATS facility, there was a tour conducted by Charles “Pepper” Bonney. This tour was highly inspiring with Pepper’s enthusiasm being highly infectious and rightly so. The equipment I got to see at NCATS surpassed any expectations I had with highlights being the cold plasma pipettes cleaner, the robotic arms and compound storage system and the tissue printers which were all extremely impressive.

After a lunch with wonderful company from Dinusha’s, our guide’s, lab, I enjoyed the opportunity to observe, first hand, some of the data analysis techniques, microscopy and imaging taking place in Dinusha’s lab for the purpose of understanding the drusen of the retina during macular degeneration. Following this, it was an honour to meet with Dr. Badea who was researching individual ganglion cell functions. It was fascinating to hear about working at NIH from his perspective and to understand the inner workings of his research. To summarise, though a little overwhelming, the mechanisms and work observed today were inspiring and very interesting.

Day 3

Arriving at the NIH in the morning, breakfast was once again a treat. Following breakfast, a meeting with Dr Samer Hattar proved to be astounding! His knowledge and understanding, as well as his passion, for his area of research, primarily focused on the function of ipRGCs, was not only an inspiring case of positive research but a truly fascinating area of research. I was lost for words.

After taking the metro to the NPR site, a tour showed the key sites in the building. This was rather intriguing and hearing about the stories of the station was entertaining. Being my first visit to a media institution, it was also interesting to see the inner workings of a large scale radio station. To add to this rather impressive tour, a lunchtime outing with Ms Cohen of the Hidden Brain podcast was very pleasant. It was fascinating once again to hear about the role of a podcast producer within a radio station as well as learning about the background that led her to the position she currently has.

Finally, the day concluded with a visit to the National Gallery of Art. The facility contained an impressively large number of works by world renowned artists such as Rembrandt, Picasso, Da Vinci and Raphael which were an honour to witness first hand. As well as these paintings the gallery, set in a large facility, was littered with outstanding artworks of which the quality was of the highest standard. I was thoroughly thrilled to visit it.

Day 4

Today was an another action packed day! The morning began, once again, with breakfast in Building 10 of the NIH. Following this, I saw the facility containing the the mice test subjects for all the labs in the NIH. The smells were strong, however, the facility was extremely interesting and it was a treat to see so many sweet animals. Up a few floors a video was played showing us the operations required to crush and remove the optic nerve. This was, although somewhat gruesome, rather fascinating as it, with the visit to the mice facility, gave an insight into the practical work undertaken by graduates and doctors at the NIH.

After this I experienced Virtual Reality for the first time, using a headset designed by HTC. The programmes experienced were created to enable the user to see and understand molecules in three dimensions. There was also software which showed MRIs in 3D and these proved to be extremely interesting to try. Also in the NIH library there was a 3D printer which was being used to print tools and 3D models of specific body parts. As a practical application of 3D printing technology this was rather refreshing to see.

At 11am, another video displaying the contrast between the lives of deaf and blind people was shown; this gave an interesting reference to the lives of these groups of people which can be overlooked. Following this, a meeting was held with a coordinator and two artists from “Art Enables”. The scheme was an amazing one to learn about and the artwork it produced was, in many cases, extremely impressive. The lunch held with them was also interesting and was rather filling in preparation for the afternoon.

In the afternoon, I visited the Natural History Museum and this proved to be extremely interesting in a surprising way. Initially visiting the mammalian and dinosaur related areas, I was astounded when I arrived at the gems, rocks and minerals section as the exhibits here related closely to the work I did for my EPQ. I must have spent a quality 45 minutes documenting and viewing different minerals, which I previously written of making seeing them in the flesh all the more special. From live animals to art this day was extremely varied and positively engaging.

Day 5

Following breakfast in Building 35A, the day began with a meeting with Wei Li who described his work in the study of hibernating animals which was very interesting and gave, like all of the previous meeting with principal investigators, yet each in a different way, an interesting and wide view into the work involved in and results of research which prior to this experience I never had. Following this, Mr Sengupta showed us the lab space he uses, with his lab partners, to conduct his research into the blue photoreceptors with a view restoring dichromatic vision. Compared Ms Dinusha’s lab, the space was very open plan with enough space to allow the separation of workspace and lab space which clearly showed the variation in the labs.

A tour of the clinical centre was conducted after this and it proved to be very informative helping me, perhaps, to finally orientate myself in and around Building 10. When Mr Sengupta took us back to his lab he showed us some of the equipment in his lab in action. First he demonstrated the dissection of a mouse retina, this being rather interesting and helpful to appreciate the difficultly of some of the procedures undertaken in the NIH. Intriguingly, following this he also took out a ground squirrel retina from the fridge, seemingly trivial, however it showed me clearly the practical application of the work which his lab undertakes (hibernation, which occurs at cold temperatures, slows the degeneration of photoreceptors in the eye which means that eyes can be kept in the fridge). The second step in his demonstration was to fire a DNA gun at the tissue, the bullets of which contained dye, in order to mark the ganglion cells the technology required being rather interesting. Finally the work concluded with a viewing under a specialist microscope which provided images of the ganglion cell. The specialisation of the microscope once again displayed the work required in the labs, like at NCATS, in engineering in order to determine specific data types.

The afternoon consisted of talks from Mr Ader and Dr Grasser. The first discussed his work in cell death to determine the role of bax in the breakdown of mitochondria and this like other talks describing the research at NIH gave a comprehensive background to the type of work undertaken by those working on their PHD. The second talk followed this theme talking from their work in PTSD and dance therapy and their work to conduct proper clinical trials on this technique. They were both extremely fascinating. After saying goodbye to Craig, and indeed the NIH, the action-packed and amazingly interesting day drew to a close.

Day 6

Today involved a visit to the Science and Engineering Festival 2018 at the Convention Centre. I helped out on the ARVO stand to raise awareness of their work and was displaying several different optical illusions. This was useful as it enabled me, not only to gain self-confidence, to have the opportunity to help out in a volunteer situation. The festival itself was extremely interesting and had absolutely anything one could desire to see if they had any interest in in science and engineering. For me it was almost overwhelming to see the sheer volume of fascinating stands at the event and so I spent the majority of my time at the event exploring the venue.