First of all, I would like to show my appreciation for all the people who supported me in achieving my research internship. I spent around nine months on my research internship at Song & Ming Lab, Perelman School of Medicine, University of Pennsylvania.
This report has two sections; the first is about my research and lab life, and the second is about my life outside the lab.
Research and lab life
I am in the field of neuroscience. My research interest is the relationship between information processing and the phenomenon
called adult neurogenesis, where newborn neurons are generated throughout life. Adult neurogenesis occurs in two regions of the brain. One of them, the hippocampus, plays a crucial role in learning, memory, cognition, navigation, and so on. Many researchers suggest the correlation between adult neurogenesis and information processing in the hippocampus. However, the details of how newborn neurons affect the functions of the hippocampus are still unclear. To answer this big question, I focused on the micro-scale of the brain, e.g., the neuronal network level, which is a relatively simple experimental environment. This experimental setup has the advantage of making it easier to see the effect of newborn neurons on the information processing of the hippocampus.
This strategy worked well, but as I continued my research, I realized the gap between the micro- scale and macro-scale of the brain, in other words, the neuronal network and the behavioral level. My motivation for this research internship came from this feeling, and I made up my mind to try the experiment on the behavioral level to fill in the gap, which led to the bottom-up approach to answer my research question.
Song & Ming lab, where I did my research internship, is prominent in the field of hippocampal adult neurogenesis. I thought what makes the lab strong in this field is the diversity in approach to the topic; the lab has many projects on multi-scales from the molecular level to the behavioral level. Here, I set two goals for this internship. The first one is acquiring basic skills for behavioral experiments and revealing the correlation between hippocampal cell activity and spatial information processing. The second one is learning how lab members collaborate with each other to make significant achievements regardless of the different scales on which they are working.
I would say I was very fortunate to be enrolled in several projects, which gave me many opportunities to master basic experimental skills. Sang Hoon, who is one of the postdocs and a specialist in behavioral experiments, taught me all kinds of fundamental skills and gave me advice over the internship. For the first three months, I learned the basics of conducting behavioral experiments and spent most of my time practicing. Honestly, this period was a rigorous time for me because I was required to perform such fine skills that I always got something wrong. Even though I knew how difficult it was to gain new skills from scratch, I had been upset and worried that I would not bring any results to Japan. But looking back at that time, l am confident that those three months were crucial because they changed my mindset and made me mentally tough.
During this research internship, I was involved in three projects. One of them is my own small project, “spatial information in the ventral hippocampus,” and I did every procedure myself. The other two projects are “remapping” and “adult newborn neurons,” driven by Sang Hoon. I did some parts of the experiments and analysis. He has spent lots of time on both projects, such as 8-9 years! For the “remapping” projects, the journal article is under review. For the “adult newborn neurons” project, the paper will be presented at the largest international neuroscience conference (Society for Neuroscience) this November. In addition, the research article will be submitted to the journal in a short time. I am a co-author of all papers above. I will focus more on my small project. The hippocampus is composed of two parts; the dorsal and the ventral. The former is investigated well, and the relationship between spatial information and the activity of dorsal hippocampal cells has been understood. But we do not know much about the latter. Another problem is that separating the electrical activity from each type of cell in the hippocampus is challenging. However, Song & Ming lab has improved their own technique to enable the separation. By using this technique, I aim to understand the properties of each type of cell in the ventral hippocampus with regard to spatial information processing. I made a recording device with tetrode channels and put it into a mouse’s brain above the hippocampus. Lowering the tetrodes’ location little by little while looking at the recorded electrical signal enabled me to get the signal from the target spot, the hippocampus. Once tetrodes reached the designated spot, I performed the freely behaving experiments. I recorded hippocampal electrical activity as a mouse was put in different environments to forage. By clustering cells, followed by separating them into each type of cell, I can analyze their characteristics in spatial information. I finished collecting data in the US, and I am continuing to analyze the data in Japan. I still keep in touch with Sang Hoon and Hongjun to complete my small project!
I was amazed by the quality of the lab meeting every time. In the lab, there are three types of meetings; individual, small group, and lab meetings. Here I would like to point out the last one. Once a week, one of the lab members presents their research in front of all the lab members. I was surprised that the meeting was very interactive and full of discussion, lasting nearly 2 hours! There are more than 20 postdocs, so each person presents their research every 4-5 months, which makes their presentation as high level as the one at conferences. As I mentioned before, lab members work on different scales, but they give comments or ask questions to the presenter and discuss a lot. I also gained insights and new knowledge, although sometimes it was hard to catch up with the presentation and discussion.
Noteworthy things other than the above
1. Research environment
Lab technicians and lab managers do administrative work and do fundamental support to maintain the lab, so researchers in the lab can focus on their research. In addition, I thought many researchers work freely depending on their lifestyle. For example, some of the postdocs having children come to the lab very early in the morning and leave early in the evening, and they do not come every day. Their flexible working style looked fascinating to me.
2. Lab events
The lab has several events to connect with researchers closer. For instance, lunch is provided after the lab meeting every two weeks. That was a good opportunity to talk with researchers who were not usually involved during experiments. In summer, the BBQ party was held at PIs’ house. I was astonished that not only the lab members but also their families were invited. I enjoyed talking while eating delicious BBQ and playing cards together at PIs’ incredibly huge house. Besides, I encountered surprising occasions; GODIVA chocolates were distributed to everyone on Christmas; Lab members drank champagne to the acceptance of a journal paper by Nature in the meeting; On the last day of my internship, lab members gave me a message card and a UPenn T- shirt as a gift!
I am very satisfied with my internship because I learned more than expected. Not only did I achieve both of my goals, but also I had great and precious moments. I keep working on the analysis to complete my project. I appreciate that I met marvelous researchers and research environments.
Life outside the lab
I always appreciate that I have been blessed with people whom I met. That was no exception while in the US. Here, I would like to introduce my wonderful friends.
I need to mention the situation surrounding me quickly. Because of the covid restriction, the social gathering events of UPenn were not held often at the beginning, which made it difficult for me to encounter new people. However, I tried joining the events as much as possible because I believe widening the community and making new friends are indispensable.
I participated in events such as the curry event held by UPenn Japan Student Association, food events where students can grab food for free, and the skating event held by the graduate housing. I made new friends at each event and hung out with them on weekends! Furthermore, my friends introduced their friends to me so that my circle of friends became bigger.
1. UPenn Ph.D. student and a family of a Pastor.
I met a UPenn Ph.D. student from Taiwan whose research field is transportation systems at the curry event. Surprisingly, he has been strongly intrigued by Japan and plans to do a research internship at the University of Tokyo. We regularly hung out and exchanged information about Japan, Taiwan, and the U.S. I sometimes taught him Japanese as well. Now I look forward to meeting him in Japan this summer! With his introduction, I met a Pastor and his family. They were genuinely kind and invited him and me to the Christmas home party. Taking this opportunity, we visited their home regularly. We enjoyed Sri Lankan food because the hometown of his wife was there. We also made Japanese cuisine together. The two children were adorable, and I liked playing with them. I had not been familiar with Christianity, but I learned much about it from their family by celebrating events such as Easter, joining the worship service, and so on. Getting to know other cultures was absorbing and gave me new perspectives. Besides, I really respect their great personalities.
2. UPenn undergraduate student and her boyfriend.
I met a UPenn undergraduate student at a free food event. She was born in Philly and raised there. Her curiosity and knowledge were stunning, and she showed me around Philly and told me so many interesting topics. She introduced her boyfriend, who studies at University of Maryland, and we often hung out. He is also brilliant! Since their parents are from different countries, China and Serbia, we sometimes discuss differences in culture, education, and so on. One day, they took me to their hometown, located in the suburbs of Philly. It was astounding the massive difference in the atmosphere between a city and a suburban area. I visited their enormous houses and talked with their mothers as well. One of the most impressive things from their mother’s talk is that women in Serbia are powerful, and many female students are in STEM. My life in the U.S. would not be such fulfilling days without them. I am delighted that I hung out with them a lot during this internship.
3. UPenn undergraduate student.
I met a UPenn undergraduate student who researches cancer cells and studies Japanese. She is in a relatively close research field outside the lab, so we discussed our research, including research environments. Also, we talked a lot about Japanese culture and the characteristics of the US. She plans to visit Japan this winter, and hopefully, we will meet again!
4. UPenn Ph.D. student from Japan & My friends studying in the US.
When I joined the winter event to go skating held by the graduate housing, I talked with some graduate students. One of them was a married couple from Japan. They invited me to the association of UPenn Ph.D. Japanese students and I had several opportunities to talk with them. One of the remarkable things is that we took our friends who have an interest in Japan to have a Hanami party in spring.
Besides, I traveled to the city near Philly to meet my friends studying in the US. They pursue their dream and study hard at Columbia University, Johns Hopkins University, and MIT. Talking with them was very helpful in comprehending the difference in life, study, and culture between the US and Japan.
In the past, I had some chances to go abroad for a short term. Of course, I made friends with whom I keep in touch now. However, I feel that I could make much stronger friendships during this internship. This is because I constantly met my friends, which enabled us to talk more deeply. I miss them from the bottom of my heart, but I believe this relationship will last many years to come.
It was demanding doing all the steps regarding this internship by myself, from finding candidates for a lab and contacting PIs to preparing for the new life in the US. Because of Covid-crisis, I was about to give up doing a research internship. In the beginning, it was harsh to get used to the brand-new environment alone. It was horrifying that I encountered gun shootings twice. However, I firmly believe all these experiences helped me improve myself. I experienced both the good and bad sides of the US, which became a trigger to reconsider Japan. Nothing could replace the experiences of doing a new kind of research in a spectacular environment, connecting with fabulous researchers, and having such great relationships with friends in Philly. This research internship is my treasure.
Last but not least, I sincerely appreciate the Ito Foundation U.S.A. (the fund provider) and Friends of UTokyo, Inc. for supporting my research internship.