New York Medical College

Community Connection - Frontiers in Physiology

High School science teacher spends summer in brain research laboratory

As she prepares thin slices of brain for research in the laboratory of Patric K. Stanton, Ph.D., professor of cell biology and anatomy, Maria Winston, a science research teacher at Edgemont High School in Scarsdale, N.Y., remembers what it is like to see something for the first time. And that, she thinks, is the single most important concept she will convey to her students when she returns to her classroom this fall.

Ms. Winston is one of 21 teachers nationwide selected to be part of Frontiers in Physiology, a program of the American Physiological Society. Dr. Stanton volunteered to host her in his laboratory for seven weeks over the summer as she fulfilled the obligations of her $8,500 grant.

“It is a very different day than teaching school,” said Ms. Winston, who teaches science to seventh graders and science research to high school students who frequently compete in the Intel Science Talent Search. “Working in the lab requires a lot of planning in advance so that things are ready for you. Technology is very different, the microscopes are complex and research is based on several different computer programs.”

Frontiers in Physiology aims to allow teachers to experience science “in action,” learning how the research process works, what scientists do, and the intrinsic satisfaction and excitement of conducting research.

The program encourages teachers to explore questions such as: what do research scientists do? How do they decide what research questions to explore? How do they share their findings with other scientists? How do they train future scientists? How does basic research contribute to our understanding of diseases and how to treat them? And what does it feel like to investigate a question that no one has tackled before?

The focus of research in Dr. Stanton’s lab, is the cellular mechanisms that lead to long-term alterations in the strength of synaptic connections between neurons, mechanisms believed to be essential for long-term memory storage. These mechanisms, collectively termed “synaptic plasticity,” also play an important role in deciding which neurons will die in response to acute trauma or neurodegenerative diseases.

“The selective strengthening of some connections and weakening of others between neurons is thought to be how memories are stored, and later activated when we recall them,” Dr. Stanton explained. “A better understanding of how neurons change their electrical excitability properties is certain to be key to our understanding of how we become, and remain, creatively intelligent.”

To study these mechanisms, Ms. Winston is working with graduate students in Dr. Stanton’s lab to use intact pieces of rodent brain that retain a network of connections and cellular environment very similar to the whole animal. She is looking at the affects of a compound that modulates NMDA (N-methyl-D-aspartate) glutamate receptors essential for formation of long term memory. After applying the compound, she then deprives the brain tissue of glucose and oxygen, and goes back 24 hours later to see how many cells are dead and how many are still alive. NMDA receptors, when hyperactivated, can contribute to neural death that follows in the days and weeks after stroke and other brain trauma. Dr. Stanton’s lab is looking for a way to prevent this type of delayed neuronal death.

Ms. Winston was herself a research technician in a New York University brain research laboratory before leaving to pursue a teaching career 20 years ago. “Doing this new research is helping me to see what it is like for my students when they see something for the first time,” she said. “I feel like, Wow, I have to look at this over and over again.”

Dr. Stanton praised Ms. Winston’s organizational skills and focus, saying he hoped his graduate students were following her example. “It’s sort of funny, my graduate students are all on their best behavior around her,” he said. “Teachers know how to manage students, and she is very good about doing exactly what I ask of her and keeping everyone in line.”

The culminating event of Ms. Winston’s research experience will be her attendance at the Experimental Biology 2007 conference in Washington, D.C. in April.

“I think these kinds of programs that allow teachers and high school students to work in laboratories are very important to our society,” Dr. Stanton said. “It exposes them to science, and generates new research. But most of all, it helps demystify the scientific method of reasoning, the foundation of so much of how we view our universe.”