The Connectome Project

This is the next in a series of posts by recipients of the 2018 Career Services Summer Funding Grant. We’ve asked funding recipients to reflect on their summer experiences and talk about the industries in which they’ve been spending their summer. You can read the entire series here.

This entry is by Natalia Parjane, COL’20

At the University of Pennsylvania, I am a Cognitive Science major, concentrating in Neuroscience. During this past summer, I worked in the Perelman Center for Advanced Medicine in the Ophthalmology department under Dr. Jessica Morgan. She is an Assistant Professor of Ophthalmology and the Director of Advanced Retinal Imaging. Every day, I went to work on the “Connectome Project.” The Connectome Project is like the Genome Project, but for the eyes and the brain. It is still in its early years and is very significant to the field, so I was honored to have the chance to work under Dr. Morgan’s guidance.

The department has an interesting imaging device called the Adaptive Optics Scanning Light Ophthalmoscope, of which there are only a dozen in the world. Its built is based upon the method of Adaptive Optics in astronomy, which rids the data of aberrations. The machine measures the eye’s optical aberrations, compensates for them, and then enables high resolution retinal imaging. In the end, the device gives a beautiful look into the eye of a subject, presenting numerous rods and cones.

I assisted in imaging and processing data of the retina for the department. I took notes as each subject was being imaged and was able to participate in recording the subjects’ retina in vivo. After imaging, my work consisted of transforming the videos taken by the Adaptive Optics Scanning Light Ophthalmoscope into images to create a final montage of the part of the eye that was imaged. Usually, we imaged in four directions resulting in a cross-like montage.

The subjects imaged consisted of those with normal eyes and those with retinal diseases. The main disease assessed was Choroideremia, a condition that leads to progressive blindness, specifically tunnel vision. Choroideremia has 5000 cases in the U.S. and is caused by a genetic mutation. There are two objectives of the research: to gain insight to the disease mechanism and to assess the progression of the disease and treatment efficacy. The montages I assisted in creating are important in determining the difference in photoreceptors between normal controls and subjects with Choroideremia. Cone density is smaller for subjects with the disease than normal controls. Doing this will allow the department to fulfill its objectives.

Another amazing aspect of my internship is the lab meetings that took place every Monday. Two other labs work closely together with that of Dr. Morgan’s. They are led by Dr. Geoffrey Aguirre, an Associate Professor of Neurology and Dr. David Brainard, a Professor of Psychology. All three labs contribute different information to the study of vision and organization of the visual cortex. These meetings were often two hours long consisting of presentations and discussions. This aspect of my internship gave me more insight to the field that I wouldn’t have been able to achieve with just studying. Ultimately, the Connectome Project is a project that will take many years, but one that has great significance in the field of Ophthalmology and I can’t wait to see the outcomes.

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