Research Illuminates Career Path
How do you remove the brain of a fruit fly? Very carefully, says Willamette University biology major Jennifer Friedman. She's removed the brains of more than 1,000 of the tiny insects. Friedman was one of 10 students selected to participate in the Center for Research on Occupation and Environmental Toxicology's (CROET) summer student research program at Oregon Health Sciences University (OHSU) in Portland, Ore. For the senior science major, learning to dissect fruit flies allowed the senior science major to find her true career path.
Friedman says when she started as a freshman at Willamette, she thought she'd like to pursue a career in law. Law is in her blood. Her sister, an attorney in New York City, works as an assistant district attorney and her dad was in law enforcement. After interning for two summers at the Manhattan District Attorney's office where her sister works as a bureau chief, Friedman says she just couldn't shake her "passion for science."
"No one in my family likes science," she says, laughing good-naturedly. "They really don't understand my passion for it. They think I'm odd. They also don't get how difficult majoring in science and taking all the labs can be."
Friedman decided to follow her scientific passion and aim for medical school. When a friend told her about the CROET program, she leapt at the opportunity. The program, which is open to Oregon undergraduates, gives students three months of work experience in a laboratory and pays a stipend of $3,500. Friedman was one of more than 100 applicants from 10 different schools. To be considered, students must possess a strong background in science and have experience working in a laboratory environment. Friedman submitted transcripts, participated in a face-to-face interview and wrote a personal statement explaining the type of research she wanted to pursue.
"I wasn't really sure what I wanted to do career-wise and I hoped the experience at CROET would help clarify that for me," she says. "I told them that I'm interested in biogenetics and gene structure and how it relates to human behavior."
Friedman's strong background in biology and chemistry landed her a position with researcher Doris Kretzschmar, Ph.D., who is unraveling the puzzle of Alzheimer's disease by studying neurodegeneration in fruit flies (Drosophila).
"My job was to find out which neurons, if any, were degenerating in a certain species of mutant fruit flies and determine whether or not that degeneration was age-dependent."
Friedman had to learn how to remove microscopic fruit fly brains and prepare them for slides. The process was exacting and involved "very tiny tweezers" and "a very big microscope." Once the brains were removed, Friedman had to wash the organs in various chemicals and prepare them for microscopic slide examination. She says it took her an entire week to learn the procedure and she lost "so many brains."
Her persistence paid off. Much to the delight and surprise of Dr. Kretzchmar, Friedman actually identified a fruit fly neuron with age-dependent neurodegeneration, much like that found in humans with Alzheimer's. While her research must be replicated many times before scientists can draw solid conclusions, Friedman's work adds valuable knowledge about the nervous pathways that may be involved in Alzheimer's.
"While there's no exact correlation between humans and fruit flies, a lot of the nervous signal pathways are the same," explains Friedman. "If you understand a mechanism in the fruit fly, it helps you better understand that mechanism in humans."
Does Friedman want to become a biomedical researcher? Not exactly. While she found the laboratory work fascinating and stimulating, she also found it very exacting and tedious. "I couldn't work every day eight hours a day in a lab," she confides.
A number of events coalesced to help Friedman clarify her next career steps. During her summer at OHSU, she job shadowed the head of plastic surgery, observing and learning exactly what a doctor does day-to-day. Also around this time, her best friend was seriously injured in an auto accident, which added to her time at the hospital.
"I love medicine and I love to help people," she says. "But I realized it would be very difficult for me to be around sick people making life-and death decisions every day. I'm just too emotional for that. Then, after being at the hospital so much, I realized I don't want to work in a hospital setting."
All of her experience, her love of science and her desire to be a doctor came together soon after her OHSU program and Friedman got an internship working for an optometrist. She's applied to Pacific University's four-year doctor of optometry program and plans to operate a private optometry practice.
"I have an eye problem so I have experience with optometry and know how it can help people," she says. "As an optometrist, you have doctor-patient interaction, which I love. I now see that it's the perfect career for me."