Researching Abroad in the Land of Chocolates and Cheese

Smitha Sarma
Major: Biological Sciences
Minor: Global Health, Psychology
Location this summer: Lausanne, Switzerland




I have three weeks left in Switzerland and I can’t believe how time has flown by! I have learned so much during my time here, both about neuroscience and about living abroad on my own.  I’m so glad I picked the lab that I did. Half the lab speaks French, and the other half English, so I get a chance to improve my spoken French, but can rest assured that I don’t mess up my experiments because of misunderstandings. Moreover, everyone is extremely friendly- we’ve gone on outings for pizza and fondue, to watch the Dark Knight Rises, and to play ultimate Frisbee at the park. Talk about work hard, play hard!

My mentor, a kind and patient German senior scientist, allowed me to take part in a multifaceted project on Parkinson’s disease (PD). Our overall question is the following: how can we best break down alpha-synuclein, the protein associated with neuronal degeneration in Parkinson’s? To answer this question, we make rats model organisms of PD. A few weeks ago, we injected genetically modified viruses into the right brains of thirty-six rats, causing them to express alpha-synuclein. Some of these rats were also injected with additional viruses containing potentially therapeutic genes. The day of the injections was really exciting. Because we were working with viruses, we had to dress up like surgeons- we put on suits, masks, and wore two layers of gloves! I got to cut open the rats’ skulls and make sutures post-surgery. Though they were anesthetized during the injections, they woke up and started milling about their cages within the hour!

Every four weeks, we perform behavioral tests on our rats to understand how the PD is affecting them. Because we introduced alpha-synuclein into the right brain, affected rats slowly lose the ability to direct movement in the left half of the body (this is a phenomenon known as contralateral control). In order to gauge motor control, we do the cylinder test: we stick the rats into tall plastic cylinders and count the number of times they touch the sides with each hand. Our hope is that the rats injected with therapeutic genes will exhibit equally good motor control with both hands, whereas the rats injected with alpha-synuclein alone will start favoring their right hands more and more as the disease progresses. I have learned that in vivo experiments take a lot of time and careful planning. For example, before the injections, my mentor had the foresight to order two extra rats, and for good reason, because one died during surgery. I also learned that biology requires a mastery of good controls. You can’t conclude that A caused B unless you can rule out every other option. I swear half the experiments we do are controls for the real question we want to answer.

Ok, enough about research! Since my last post, I have really settled into life in Lausanne.  I have discovered that Switzerland is an extremely expensive place to live. Although one Swiss dollar is only 1.05 USD, everything here is at least 50% more expensive than it would be at home.  This is because the Swiss receive high salaries. Eating out is an especially costly affair. A pizza and coke cost me about thirty bucks! So, even though I’m so clueless in the kitchen that I’d probably burn water, I have been forced to learn how to cook. Grocery shopping in Switzerland is always an adventure, because none of the products are labeled in English. You have to understand German, French or Italian (those three and Romansh are Switzerland’s national languages) in order to know what you’re getting. There are two huge supermarket chains – Migros and Coop – which have everything ranging from books to potatoes. College students like myself buy the budget brands, called “MBudget” or “Prix garantie” which are much cheaper than the normal products. They have budget brand everything, even pillows!

And of course, I have been using all my free time to see this beautiful country. Highlights include the Maison de Cailler chocolate factory, where I got to try unlimited samples of all kinds of chocolate; a tour of CERN where we learned all about the Higg’s boson and the Large Hadron Collider; Château de Chillon, a medieval castle in the lakeside town of Montreux, fully equipped with a moat and guard tower; the street parade in Zurich where I danced to techno music amongst a crowd of thousands of people dressed up in the most outrageous costumes; and my favorite, a hike high up in the Swiss Alps, where we walked right past the grazing cows, and got amazing views of the majestic Aletsch glacier.


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