Through their lens: Andrew Moreno gets inundated with information, and learns about tooth formation

This summer we’re sponsoring high school interns in stem cell labs throughout California. We asked those students to contribute to our Instagram photos and YouTube videos about life in the lab, and write about their experiences.

Andrew Moreno did a stem cell research internship this summer in the laboratory of Jill Helms at Stanford University.

Andrew Moreno in the lab. He submitted this photo to our #CIRMStemCellLab Instagram feed.

Before SIMR, my very limited laboratory experiences left me with the impression that research was the rote adherence to an established process, a mere repetition of the same task with a growing conviction that the outcome will be different if and only if one is more precise with each attempt. This preconceived notion regarding the true nature of research lacked the very thing that made science exciting and worth pursuing: an ardent desire to further what has already been proved in order to better and improve the world. Cliché, I know. Anyway, I decided to apply to SIMR in order to acquire some understanding of what research truly entails, but I accepted my admission to the program with lingering apprehensions and innumerable misgivings. My endgame was to determine whether or not medical research appealed to my interests in the same way that clinical practice as a physician did.

My first day of lab made me wish I hadn’t made the trip to Stanford for the summer. I was first introduced to my mentor and was put at ease on account of how reserved she was. This false security proved to be particularly transitory as the briefing that ensued inundated my sensibilities with talk of PBS, Cre-lox recombination, and Hedgehogs. In a matter of five minutes I was shaken to the core as the project I had elected to take on for the summer was expounded on from every angle. I had mistakenly espoused a self-assured confidence in my educational background and faced the unforgiving reality that I did not and could not know everything. In short, I was lost, confused, and disconcerted all at once.

Of course my perspective was completely skewed and after learning more about the molecular underpinnings of my project, I could better understand the reasons behind what I was doing in the lab. After reviewing the already published data regarding craniofacial development and the role Wnt and Hedgehog signaling have in facial patterning and morphogenesis, I was able to gain direction in the research I was conducting. I came to realize that the deletion of an intraflagellar transport protein, Kif3a, in the primary cilia of neural crest cell derived mesenchyme cells of precursory teeth resulted in an atypical phenotype characterized by an enlarged, invaginated enamel organ. For this reason, we focused on the very early stages of odontogenesis to see what could have engendered the observed patterns. So, we conducted immunostaining for various downstream target genes of the Wnt and Hedgehog pathways to visualize their activity and correlate it with the abnormal phenotypic expression.

In retrospect, I had an enormous learning curve to make up for, but I figure that any new experience comes with one. If I took away anything from my experience in SIMR, it is the realization that there is always something different and exciting to learn in a lab because searching to explain the unknown stimulates one’s imagination. Although I entered this program with an insular and cynical view of research, I find myself looking beyond the scope of what I would have originally thought possible, equipped with a new mindset and a new way of thinking. With this perspicacious outlook, I find myself better prepared for any prospective research opportunity, and as a result, I am so much closer to uncovering what true research is and represents.

Andrew Moreno

Andrew submitted this video about his experience:

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