From Lab Bench to Dining Table | Research During Covid-19

Hey there! If we haven’t met yet, thanks for stopping by to read my blog post! My name is Mostin Hu and I’m a Laidlaw scholar in the 2019 cohort. I am a soon-to-be third year medic from Toronto, Canada. My research project for both summers has focused on the same subject – I’ve been looking at impact of the intracellular parasite Trachipleisphora hominis (T. hominis) on host cells’ autophagy response. I promise it isn’t nearly as scary as it sounds..! You can read more about the background of my research in my post from last summer here

A picture from my time in the lab last summer! I’m looking down a microscope to check on my cultured cells.
My view down the microscope, looking at cells growing on a Petri dish!

It wouldn’t be appropriate to start this post without addressing the huge elephant in the room: COVID-19. A brief skim of recent posts on this blog from other Laidlaw scholars reveals our collective shock over the current events in the world. Bedrooms and dining tables have replaced laboratories and library desks as research projects were all altered to be completed online. Despite (perhaps as a result) of this chaos, I’ve been able to witness the incredible tenacity and adaptability of Laidlaw scholars.

The Original Plan
My research last summer revealed an interesting host response to T. hominis infection, but due to time and budget constraints, we were unable to investigate them further. Following on from last summer’s research, my supervisor and I originally planned to conduct five more weeks of laboratory-based research this summer using more specific reagents to determine:
1. the type of autophagy response that was occurring in the host cells infected with T. hominis;
2. whether this response was beneficial or harmful to the host cells;
3. the exact chemical trigger for the autophagy response in hopes of ultimately exploiting this response as a future pharmaceutical

Then COVID-19 Arrived…
To be honest, when it was announced that all research projects would be done online this summer, I was super disappointed because we had so many fascinating experiments planned, but as a medic, I understood the severity of the situation. I suppose it’s a little ironic that in the process of studying an infectious organism (albeit, T. hominis is not a virus, but still..), a prolific disease spreads across the planet causing levels of turmoil that few can fathom.

Like many other Laidlaw scholars whose projects relied on special equipment or resources, my supervisor and I had to drastically alter our research plans This summer, I chose to complete two weeks of research, putting aside the remaining three weeks for lab research later in the semester when it’s safe again.

A look at my giant Excel spreadsheet detailing notes for each T. hominis protein.

The New Plan
To make the most of my time away from the lab, my new two-week project involved a search through a database of 419 sequenced T. hominis proteins. The goal was to create a shortlist of proteins which may be responsible for initiating the host cell autophagy response we observed last summer. I copied and pasted each protein’s amino acid sequence, one by one, into five different servers which gave a readout on the characteristics of the protein such as the length of the sequence, predicted location in the cell, transmembrane regions (sections that were embedded in the cell/organelle membrane), and potential function based on specific sequences of amino acids called eukaryotic linear motifs (ELM) present.

Coming Full Circle
This is my second and last summer as a Laidlaw scholar, and as my time on the programme is drawing to a close, it’s bittersweet to think that we missed out on many face-to-face leadership development events and the opportunity to spend some precious moments with the other Laidlaw scholars before we all graduate from St Andrews in the coming year. These past 18 months have been transformative, and I’ve met some of the most driven, passionate, and intelligent people I know.

This summer, working from home has really highlighted to me the lessons I’ve learned as a Laidlaw scholar, especially in self-leadership. I still remember my Laidlaw interview where I was asked to define self-leadership – I was so flustered and I clumsily answered that self-leadership meant adaptability in changing circumstances and the ability to self-motivate when faced with challenges or disappointments. I could never have predicted spending summer 2020 researching at home, but I think the leadership development sessions prepared me well to adapt to these changes.

Looking Forwards
I’m optimistic that I will be able to complete the rest of my three weeks of research next semester. We are still waiting for approval from the School of Medicine to allow undergraduates to enter labs safely but I look forward to the day when we can restart our experiments.

At this time, I also need to send a sincere thank you to my supervisor Dr John Lucocq, my fellow 2019 Laidlaw scholars, the Laidlaw team at the University of St Andrews, and Lord Laidlaw for these amazing past 18 months. It’s been a wonderful learning experience and I cannot thank each and every one of you enough – can’t wait to see you guys again soon 🙂 

Leave a reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.