The Secret Circuits of Sleep

This is part of a series of posts by recipients of the 2021 Career Services Summer Funding Grant. We’ve asked funding recipients to reflect on their summer experiences and talk about the industries in which they spent their summer. You can read the entire series here.

This entry is by Sarah Pham, COL ’24

Research claims that the average person will spend one-third of their life sleeping, but what happens during all this time spent in a state of unconsciousness? This summer, I interned at the Chung Lab at the Department of Neuroscience and the Chronobiology Program at the University of Pennsylvania to learn more about the world of neural sleep circuit research. Supported by Penn’s Career Service Summer Funding Program, I was able to kickstart my journey into neuroscience undergraduate research and gained the opportunity to learn a variety of research techniques.

In all honesty, I had no idea what to expect when I was told that I would be working with mice. I had never been a very squeamish person, but swiping up a mouse by its tail wasn’t something that I thought I’d ever have to mentally prepare myself for. Aside from the initial shock of handling mice, I’ve come to hold a great deal of appreciation and regard for these live animals. The more I worked with them, the more I observed how path-altering research findings revolved around their palm-sized beings. One of my first tasks at the lab was making EEG/EMG implants and optic fiber implants for sleep recordings and observing the sleep states of REM, NREM, and wake. When surgically implanted onto the skulls of the mice, we would be able to read the electrical signals conducted during sleep and analyze the patterns of the different sleep states. With the sleep data collected by my mentor, I began learning how to annotate the sleep states of these mice in 7-8 hour intervals. Although the work may seem tedious at times, I am continually fascinated by how analyzing these recordings allows researchers to take a glimpse into the miniscule world of neurons and complex neural networks.

My intrigue with the field of Neuroscience continues to expand and tests the limits of my curiosity. Over the course of ten weeks, I was able to learn the basic process of working with mice from shadowing mouse surgeries to learning how to do perfusions and collecting brain slices for analysis under the microscope. Additionally, I was able to pursue a mini project which involved looking at the projections within brain slices injected with the tdTomato fluorescent protein in the PVN and POA. By doing so, I investigated firsthand the communication between neurons and learned about the brain anatomy of mice.

The time I have spent this summer has given me the opportunity to undertake a plethora of new technical and intellectual challenges. With my newfound knowledge and set of skills, I hope to gain further independence in neuroscience research. For the following fall semester, I plan to continue at the Chung Lab through work-study.

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