This summer I have been working as a volunteer research assistant at a U.Va. lab. Usually during this time of year I volunteer at UVA and Martha Jefferson. I undoubtedly continued those programs; however, this year I also decided dive into the research aspect of medicine and got in touch with Dr. Rosin, a wonderful leader in the Okusa Lab. She graciously accepted me into the lab, and my six-week journey commenced.
Khutsishvili '19 Volunteers at U.Va.'s Okusa Laboratory
This summer, Liza Khutsishvili '19 volunteered as a six-week research assistant at University of Virginia's Okusa Lab, which focuses on chronic and acute kidney injury. With a background in volunteering at Martha Jefferson Hospital, Khutsishvili decided to push herself into diving fully into medical research. Here she reflects on her experiences.
The Okusa Lab focuses on chronic and acute kidney injury. Dr. Mark Okusa, the PI of the lab, is a globally admired physician-scientist. He not only serves as the Chief of U.Va.'s Division of Nephrology and Center for Immunity but is also on a number of research grant and editorial boards. This year he became the president of the American Society of Nephrology. Of course it excited me knowing how privileged I was to be able to work in his lab, but the excitement came with a little bit of stress. It was nerve-racking knowing the heightened position and expectations the lab would have. On top of that, knowing the sensitive samples I would deal with came from mice that took months and thousands of dollars to create might, just maybe, have been a source for a little stress!
Despite all of these circumstances, my experience at the lab has been wonderful. The researchers understood I would not be at the same level as their undergraduate volunteers, due to the fact that I have not yet gone through biology, and they spent countless hours explaining concepts to me. They would make sure I understood the mechanisms of certain experiments and the broad research goal.
A graduate researcher in the lab, Kinga Rudnicka, had an amusing way of explaining her work schedule: "You don't determine the hours you work, the cells do." This statement accurately describes my time spent in the lab. I have learned that, in a lab, one's to-do-list needs to be as flexible as possible. If an experiment does not produce a desirable outcome, the whole plan and hypothesis might be subject to change. Due to this unpredictable schedule, I did not have one specific, primary person or study, however, it was Kinga's study of which I became particularly fond. To give a brief and simple explanation, she is interested to see if knocking out S1P1 receptors from pericytes would protect the kidney from acute kidney injury (AKI). Of course, there is a multitude of underlying mechanisms involved but simplified explanations like these gave me confidence that I could, in the end, understand it all.
A couple of weeks ago, during a weekly lab meeting, I realized the progress I had made. In the first meeting, I understood nothing. The only word I could link a definition to was "kidney;" however, as time passed, my understanding grew tremendously. I started understanding what the graphs meant, the obstacles they faced, and the suggestions given by Dr. Okusa. The misspelled words I had once written with question marks next to them in my notebook began weaving into complete sentences I fully understood. This is not to say I mastered every concept, but I surprised myself with how much I did.
In the last number weeks I got to do experiments independently, and with that came a boatload of satisfaction and a very sore thumb (from all the pipetting). Overall this experience has opened doors for me - I got to make connections with the hospital in a way I have not before and understand the job of a researcher. My dedication to becoming a physician has not wavered, but this experience has truly motivated me to get involved in laboratory research during my upcoming undergraduate years.