Streed of Consciousness [Part 1 – Lab]

(Reed’s Playlist for the occasion: Under Cover of Darkness by the Strokes)

It occurred to me a few days ago as I sat down to post that I had nothing to write about.

I love that I’ve continued my commitment to writing every day, but it can be kind of tough to continually think of new things to post about. I don’t want to be that person who struggles to post and then ends up posting things that aren’t important or helpful to other writers.

So I’m gonna do something stupid and fun instead.

I’m calling it Streed of Consciousness (look closely, it’s a pun).

Streed of Consciousness will be a series where I just start typing and see what comes out. I think it’ll be a nice change of pace from the writing advice, and it’ll let you learn a little more about me and the strange way my brain functions.

So let’s dive right in!

I’m in lab right now which, as many of you know, is one of my favorite places to write. For those of you who have never done science research, there are often large gaps in experimental protocol (sometimes multiple hours) in which there is literally nothing to do. My lab can be any level of busy but is usually pretty quiet, and no one minds if I play the Journey soundtrack in the back (which has become my go-to writing playlist).

If I’m writing, it’s happening in one of two places – either here, on this ancient computer (seriously, it’s called a ViewSonic VE155 and I have no idea who makes it), or at my apartment, on my comfy couch with my laptop. In general I prefer my laptop (it lets me put my headphones in and immerse myself in music while I write), but nothing beats two hours of dead time as an incentive to do something, anything productive.

So anyway, a little bit of background about my lab. I work in a UCLA lab that mostly uses fish as our model organism. Now, for any of you animal rights peeps out there, I want you to know I have the utmost respect for your cause, and I’m actually vegetarian because fuck the meat industry, right? I have my own reasons for why I’m doing research on animals (which would actually make for a great Streed of Consciousness later, maybe I’ll give it a shot).

I don’t enjoy doing research on animals, and some of the things I experience in lab (either things my labmates do happily, or things I have to do reluctantly) leave a lasting imprint on me. I don’t want any animal rights activist to view the standard researcher as someone who routinely tortures cute, fuzzy animals with glee and malice – that’s just not the way things work. But neither are we absolved of guilt in our daily proceedings, and that’s our burden to bear.

Wow, that was tangential. Let’s pull it back to the main subject, yeah? My lab is split into two sections – the aplysia californica side and the danio rerio side. In other words, the sea snail side and the zebrafish side.

Many of you have probably heard people doing research on mice and rats, or bonobo chimps, but why fish? It’s actually a really good question, and the answer is different for the two species.

Aplysia, the sea snails, are simple and easy to classically condition. (If you’ve not heard of classical conditioning, google “Pavlov dogs explanation” or something; it’s cool stuff.) The aplysia nervous system is nowhere near as complex as higher organisms and their external anatomy – a gill and siphon, in particular – lend themselves easily to classical conditioning because they form basic reflexes. Here’s a fun fact for you non-science nerds: if an organism has a basic reflex, that’s a great target for conditioning because the behavior is so instinctive (it’s basically programmed into the animal from birth).

On the other hand, danio rerio, the zebrafish, is the part of the lab I work for, and they’re great for a couple of reasons. First off, most of the major neural circuitry we’re interested in looking at comes online 5 days post fertilization (or dpf). Imagine 5 days after conception for a human – you’re like the size of a jelly bean and you can’t do shit. Zebrafish are swimming around, their anatomy solidified, the neural connections we’re interested in are mostly formed. That’s pretty incredible for 5 days into the world.

Baby zebrafish are also translucent, which means we can see right into their brains and spinal cords (kind of). It makes imaging of cells and connections easier for us, and allows us to know better what’s going on inside a zebrafish’s brain.

They also have a lot of neurological similarities to humans – I’m sure everyone’s heard those misleading facts about how we share, like, 60% of our DNA with a banana or something, but I’m talking serious similarities here. Zebrafish brains have, in some cases, structures and connections that are almost exactly the same as humans, which means we can study human disease cures by inducing those same diseases in fish and then attempting to cure them.

(Yeah, like I said, the reality of it isn’t pretty. But I give myself enough guilt over it, so I don’t need anyone else telling me I’m a horrible person.)

Finally, zebrafish have an easy reflex that we can classically condition, just like aplysia. In this case, it’s called the C-start reflex, and it’s actually pretty cool. A zebrafish hears a loud noise or sees something potentially predatory, and it executes this escape response where its whole body curls up like the letter C and it launches off very quickly in a new direction. We have to use high-speed cameras just to capture the C-start – that’s how quick it is. And we can (or, I should say we’re trying to) condition that reflex.

Yeah, science, bitch!

(Do you know he never actually said that in the show? Weird, huh?)

Anyway, that was fun. More word vomit to come!

Yours, running in that middle zone between tired and asleep,

-R.R. Buck


2 thoughts on “Streed of Consciousness [Part 1 – Lab]

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