Khutsishvili '19 Volunteers at U.Va.'s Okusa Laboratory
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.

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.

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.