I interviewed Desirée De León, a rising 3rd Year PhD Student at Emory University. She described her research, thoughts, and experiences as a PhD student working on behavior in primates. Despite the grueling demands of PhD programs, Desirée manages to find the beauty in her studies.
William: What kind of research are you currently performing?
Desirée: I study social behavior and genetics in rhesus macaques, a very social species of monkey. I'm very interested in how individual differences in genes and early life experience impact brain development and shape an individual's social profile throughout their life. This is particularly relevant for understanding the social impairments that characterize disorders like autism spectrum disorders, social anxiety disorder, and schizophrenia. In my research, I am closely analyzing how small changes in two genes influence levels of the neuropeptide oxytocin in the brain and how individual differences in the genes may predict a variety of social "personalities". Oxytocin is the neuropeptide I focus on because it is the hormone in the brain responsible for facilitating social bonding in many different species. Oxytocin initiates new mothers' care-taking behaviors in rodents and sheep after parturition. Oxytocin is also necessary for rodents to remember previous social interactions, and in the prairie vole, it is largely responsible for establishing a monogamous bond between mates. I spend a lot of time doing genetics work, sequencing the gene for oxytocin and the gene for its receptor, using blood samples acquired from the rhesus macaques. I also spend time observing and recording the monkeys' behaviors as they interact in large social groups, and track their behavior from birth through adolescence. This will allow me to see how social behavior changes for each monkey across development. Understanding the link between variation in the oxytocin genes and social behavior will allow us to get an idea of what specific genetic combinations most directly influence the brain, and what combinations make an individual more or less susceptible to developing social disorders.
W: Describe a typical day as a PhD student.
D: As a new student, the typical experience involves attending a daily class where you get a very intensive overview of every imaginable topic in neuroscience. Each day there is a new topic with a new speaker. After the first year, most classes are out of the way, so the bulk of your time is spent in the lab, defining your thesis and beginning to collect data. For me, this means I am out at the field station, where my monkeys are. Working with monkeys makes my lab experience slightly atypical because taking care of a rhesus takes an entire team of people. The monkeys I am studying are also studied by different people for other projects--as a team effort, we all help train the monkeys and collect samples for the others on our team, even if it is not directly related to our project. Being a primate researcher, you also have to work on the monkeys' schedule. Many samples needed for the research (like certain blood measurements) are time-sensitive and need to be collected before the animals wake up and become active. This means the workday begins before the sunrise. My days typically have very early starts because of this, but it usually involves being able to hold and cradle a baby monkey while we get the sample we need, so it's completely worth it!
W: I understand that you did lab rotations during your first year as a PhD student. Can you tell me more about this process?
D: A rotation is basically an 8-10 week experience where you become a temporary employee of a scientist's lab. The idea is that you will find a lab that has a research topic and work culture that is a good fit for you to stay on long-term for your thesis. It's a really great way to sample many different parts of the field. At the conclusion of each rotation, we wrote up a lab report detailing the projects we completed in the lab. My first rotation was spent in a pharmacology lab. There I did a lot of work at the molecular level, growing neuron-like cells in petri dishes and measuring protein levels with western blots. My second rotation also involved growing cells in petri dishes, but the focus of the second lab was on microscopy. I learned to take 3D images of the parts of the cells I was growing (like axons and dendrites) with a specialized microscope. For my third rotation I worked with brain tissue of monogamous rodents and learned several anatomy techniques. I learned to stain brain tissue and characterize how neurons that produce oxytocin project from one region of the brain to another. This was the rotation where I learned about oxytocin's role in social behavior. My last rotation was at the field station where I learned to work with primates and study their behavior. When it came time to commit to a lab, I decided to forge a co-mentorship between the principal investigators of the oxytocin lab and the primate lab. I am now a member of both of their labs, and my research blends their respective expertise.
W: What is the most difficult part of being a PhD student?
D: The most difficult part of being a PhD student is being able to stay motivated when different parts of a project inevitably fail. You obviously can't control whether the data will be what you expected. Sometimes you can't get a necessary technique to work, or you get messy results that seem to contradict each other. It's important to stay determined and keep an open mind about new directions your project could take.
W: What is the most rewarding part of being a PhD student?
D: Ultimately, the most rewarding thing will be able to look at my dissertation work and know that I contributed something to the scientific community that others will be able to build on. Until that day comes, though, I think it's really rewarding to fully immerse yourself in a question that no one else has ever answered before. The fun part is being able to get creative about how to answer it.
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