In the summer of 2014, SSRP participant Ryan Heron, Island Medical Program Class of 2017, had the opportunity to work with supervisors Dr. Brian Christie, Affiliate Professor, and Dr. Patrick Nahirney, Affiliate Assistant Professor, Department of Cellular & Physiological Sciences, to study the effects of a nutritional supplement—omega-3 fatty acids—on the growth of neurites, the cellular projections that become axons and dendrites in mature neurons. Although many people take omega-3 supplements and the benefits of these fatty acids on brain health are highly publicized, how they exert their effects at the cellular level is poorly understood.
Having studied cellular biology as an undergraduate, Ryan was attracted to research that would connect his academic background with his interests in medicine: “As a medical student, I believe all clinicians should have respect and natural inquiry for the science behind modern medical advice, and the SSRP allowed me to explore the interesting world of biomedical research.”
From study design to data analysis, he was largely responsible for all aspects of this project and gained the skills necessary to perform the investigations, including learning microscopy techniques, image processing, and cell culture methods. In addition to connecting basic research to clinical care, this project allowed him to continue building practical laboratory skills that are not part of the regular medical curriculum—skills that may open doors to a wide range of future research opportunities.
Although the effects of omega-3s on neuron growth were not found to be statistically significant in Ryan’s study, the knowledge he gained stimulated his interest in essential nutrients, which may prove highly important in educating patients about healthy eating. The cell culture components of the project also gave him a new respect for bacteria and the importance of practicing sterile techniques. He believes this awareness will prove especially valuable in future experiences in surgery.