November Student Spotlight - Elaina Atherton
When did you decide you wanted to pursue a PhD in biotech?
I did the 5th year master’s program in biotechnology after completing my neuroscience undergraduate degree here at Brown because I wanted to get some lab experience and I fell in love with research and lab work. I went through a period of time when I wanted to go to medical school but once I started studying for the MCAT I realized that although I found medicine interesting I didn’t feel compelled by memorizing so many facts and I kept thinking of more experiments I wanted to do after I finished my master’s degree, so I ultimately decided to come back and pursue a PhD here.
What is the focus of your project?
The Borton lab (and the Brain Gate group) studies the brain using microelectrode arrays and we record from cortical neurons. This is used in humans to treat tetraplegia and other spinal cord injuries. The recordings are taken and then decoded to reveal some motor intent and then you can control a motorized arm to do some action or movement. These recordings are not always stable long term, though, and there are a couple hypothesis for why that is true. When the electrode is implanted the body naturally has a foreign body response to the material, which results in scarring. The first hypothesis is that the scarring is so significant that it pushes neurons far enough away from the electrode that recording from them is difficult. The second hypothesis is that the scar is basically trying to eat up the foreign body but can’t so it goes into a state known as frustrated phagocytosis and produces a lot of inflammatory molecules that damage the tissue around the electrodes and kills the neurons. This generally happens around one year after implantation so my project is specifically treating the tissue around the electrodes with an antioxidant to basically prevent this antioxidant stress. It’s a very biological project but also involves a lot of chemistry and so we collaborate with the Shukla Lab, the Hoffman-Kim Lab, and the Colvin Lab.
What has been the proudest accomplishment of your time in graduate school, or a particular “high point”?
There isn’t one thing that necessarily sticks out but overall I’m really proud of the interdisciplinary nature of my work and how collaborative it is. I would say I’m really proud of my lab because of how collaborative it is and how well everyone works together. We’re constantly coming up with new ideas of things to do, whether it’s particularly science-related or new start-up ideas we come up with.
What has been the biggest challenge or frustration during grad school?
All of it? I think the biggest challenge is realizing that there is no one person who knows how to do all of the parts of your project and figuring out techniques for self teaching because that’s a big part of grad school. I knew that before starting my PhD program but I didn’t quite realize the extent. Anything I want to do for my project I can do but I have to figure out how to do it. There isn’t someone there always to teach me how to do it, which can be hard.
Have you ever done an experiment that didn’t work?
Many! The trick is to do a lot of experiments. Since we are a very new lab, we don’t have very well established protocols. Even for things like cell culture we collaborate with the Hoffman-Kim Lab and they have set protocols but we are not doing the exact same thing as them so we have to develop new things.
How did you choose your mentor? By project? By Mentor?
My Undergraduate degree is in neuroscience and my 5th year masters project was in polymeric drug delivery. Then I worked as lab tech for year and a half in polymeric drug delivery as well. After that I really wanted to get back into the neuro side of things, so the Borton lab was a perfect mix of these. In general in choosing a mentor I think it’s important to find someone that is a good personality fit and I think Dr. Borton is a great fit for me.
How was your project(s) chosen for grad school research? Did you get to pick or was a project assigned to you?
I came up with this project with Dr. Borton. It was 4-6 months of meeting every week and talking about potential ideas. We talked about a lot of different types of projects including some applications to Parkinson’s disease but eventually the discussions evolved into this project. The issue of foreign body response to the electrodes was something he had considered but hadn’t yet begun investigating.
What three qualities do you think are most important for someone entering graduate school?
Excitement about field of research is necessary so that the challenges don’t discourage and frustrate you too much.
Being a self starter and being able to work independently.
Being a fast reader.
Where do you hope for your career to be in 5-10 years?
I don’t think I’m really going to know until I’m done with my project. I picture myself going more towards industry than academia but I’m definitely not ruling anything out. In 5-10 years I definitely still want to be working on something that is really novel and that I believe is really important, which is how I feel that way about my project right now. So, I’d like to still be in science and working on something that has a direct application within the next 10 years.