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WARNING: this blog contains slightly squeamish descriptions of a biology lab. Not for the faint of stomach, or the overly-vivid of imaginations.
I don’t know if this has come up in previous blogs, but for those of you who don’t know, I’m a psychology and communication double major. Additionally, because I have a great difficulty making exclusive decisions, I’m working on an English minor and a Neuroscience certificate. The latter of those smaller designations is a complement to the psychology degree I will earn. Neuroscience essentially adds a biological component to the standard psychology curricula.
This Spring semester, I’m taking Neurobiology, which reasonably, is one of the requirements. I really enjoy the class. The professor is an emeritus of the biology department that has come back to teach this one class, so this would have been a missed opportunity to have Wayne Wiens as a teacher had I not taken the class this year. However, this class has also reminded me of why I am not a straight biology major.
This class is modestly intimidating to me since it has been, gulp, six years since I took Biology my freshman year of high school. Back then, we did the standard frog and squid dissections and as I recall, I experienced the right mixture of uneasiness and morbid excitement during that time. I enjoyed it, but it was the kind of enjoyment that was punctuated by small shimmies slithering up my back.
This last Tuesday, six years later, I had my first Neurobiology lab. Wayne had previewed the work we would be doing during class the day before, but it hadn’t quite registered that frogs would be making a return to my lab life.
The work we were doing that day was to observe the all-or-nothing potential in neurons via stimulation of a frog’s sciatic nerve. We would be using old goat-shockers attached to early iterations of LabVIEW to vary the amount of voltage and duration of stimulation applied to the nerve. But we had to get to the nerve first.
We started by learning our way around the equipment, and learning how to make sharp glass instruments by melting long glass pipettes in a Bunsen burner, and pulling the molten glass to narrow it to a fine point. As someone who has always enjoyed watching people do glass-blowing, that was particularly fun.
Part way through the lab, Wayne called us over to the sink to get our tools for dissection. He was holding a frog in his hand, and by the time I arrived at the sink, he had decerebrated the frog, which for those who need a refresher on roots means the debraining of that frog. He had severed the brainstem by inserting a pair of scissors through the mouth and…snap.
I got a little bit of a surprise when the remaining frog continued to move. Unbeknownst to me, a frog sans brain is a lot like a chicken with its head cut off: it can still move coordinatedly, even swim in a tray of water and hop out the side. Because those lingering reflexes would distort the data we were meant to be collecting, Wayne disrupted the rest of the spinal connections by running a pipette along the frog’s spinal column.
Beyond this initial shock, the lab was really engaging. I really liked it…in that same morbid fashion as in high school. We found the sciatic nerve, an off whitish string sheathed in myelin that had a tendency to curl up on itself unless you lassoed it with a piece of thread. The nerve stayed live for close to an hour and a half after we first removed the leg from the rest of the frog and hooked it up to the goat-shocker. We watched how it continued to exert contraction control over the gastronemius muscle. It evoked a very physical fascination.
We have two more labs to gather data on this phenomenon, but I doubt my reactions to the first few steps of the lab will change significantly. I can intellectualize my way through it, but I am now rather certain that I won’t find myself in the hands-on medical field anytime soon.
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