NEW YORK, U.S.A. “So if you’re a microbiology major, why are you working in a neuromedical lab?” As an undergraduate student at the University of Rochester, I have been asked this question countless times, and each time I respond, I recognize and appreciate the value of stepping outside my comfort zone and defying the norm.
Working in a field in which I am not studying is a unique experience. Many undergraduate science students learn subject material in class and look for ways to apply that same knowledge in a laboratory setting. I have approached this norm from a different perspective by challenging myself to apply my knowledge of microbiology in a neuromedical lab.
Since joining the Center of Translational Neuromedicine two years ago, I have discovered more ties between the two subjects than I initially imagined. For example, the main technique being used to complete my project is immunohistochemistry. This technique utilizes antibody binding to detect proteins through fluorescence. Using an immunohistochemical technique to measure neuronal and vascular expression of a particular enzyme in the brain has brought the fields of microbiology and neuromedicine together to answer a single research question.
My involvement in this lab was an unforeseen opportunity. I knew I wanted to get involved with research early in my undergraduate career, so applied for a research assistant position at a neuromedical lab that looked fascinating. Although initially undecided, my decision to major in microbiology stemmed from an appreciation for learning about the interactions of microbial pathogens with the human body. The choice to major in microbiology combined with the research experience in a neuromedical lab has created an opportunity to further prepare myself for a career in the medical field.
Despite my work in a neuromedical lab, I have always been fascinated with microbial pathogenesis, basically how microorganisms cause disease. In my microbiology classes, we have studied the relationship between microorganisms such as bacteria, fungi, and viruses, and the human body. Specific characteristics of microbial structure that allow microbes to cause disease, how cell signaling contributes to the immune response, and how microbial interactions affect the clinical appearance of infectious diseases are just a few topics covered in these classes. Approaching and learning neuroscience through the lens of a microbiology major has allowed me to understand neuroscience topics such as basic functional neuroanatomy in a new light. Working in a field you are not studying may sound unnecessarily difficult, but it is actually quite simple: you learn best when you like what you are doing.
The most significant benefit of studying one field and working in another is the exposure to new perspectives. In microbiology, problems are viewed on a microscopic level: examining minute details and investigating specific aspects of a given clinical problem. A microbiologist studying disease looks at which bacterial species may be the cause of particular symptoms, or the specific properties of a virus that produce a certain clinical outcome. Working in a lab like this one has taught me the skills necessary to view problems on a larger scale. There is a much greater focus on functional neuroanatomy, studying how certain actions stimulate a specific area of the brain, cerebral blood flow and the glymphatic system, the waste clearance system of the brain. Analysis of these neuroscience topics has taught me how to also use a macroscopic approach to understand disease, rather than approaching problems solely on a minute level. Exposure to both microbiology and neuromedicine has emphasized the need to understand the larger picture of a clinical problem as well as the importance of precise details. This combination of perspectives is invaluable to a physician and researcher.
Working in one field and studying in another is an experience that should not be unique to college. Exposure to new subject matter, fields of study, and fresh ideas is more than just an enriching experience, it is a practical necessity in today’s world. With constant technological advances and medical innovations, it is no longer enough to be the master of a very specific skill. Discoveries of the present could drastically alter our futures, so the ability to tailor a skill set to suit the needs of a changing environment is more valuable than ever. Knowledge of related fields not only provides us with fresh perspectives, but allows us to be more equipped to address the challenges of a constantly evolving environment.