Thoughts on Theses: Rana Barghout

Rana Barghout is a neuroscience major writing a thesis on the lateral line system and startle responses in zebrafish. Her advisor is Professor of Biology Josef Trapani.

Q: What’s your thesis about?

A: For survival, it’s important to be able to respond to sudden stimuli, along with avoiding or escaping danger. Zebrafish, the model organisms that I used, have been extensively used as the model to analyze startle responses. There are a lot of different types of startles, but the most common type of zebrafish startle is known to be organized by this hindbrain circuit, which relies on this huge, major command neuron known as the Mauthner cell. The Mauthner cell receives and integrates information from your visual, auditory and tactile systems, along with something called the lateral line system. This lateral line system is the main focus of my project; it senses surrounding water motion in the fish while it’s swimming or stationary, and we think it can discriminate between functions that are routine and sudden stimuli. Humans and zebrafish have hair cells, which are sensory cells in our ears that make up our vestibular and auditory systems. The [fish’s] lateral line system also has these hairs. This project is investigating how the lateral line system’s role and modulation on this Mauthner cell’s responses really work. Through using electro-physiological recordings of field potentials and using oxygenetix, which optically stimulates hair cells in the ear and the lateral line, we are able to cause startle responses. We’re trying to understand the zebrafish’s sensory integration system, how it takes in all of this sensory information into its systems and how the contribution of the lateral line inputs help to cause these startle responses.

Q: Have you been doing your work in a lab on campus? How did you get access to the resources you would’ve needed for your thesis?

A: I work in Professor Trapani’s lab. His lab used to be located in a room in Merrill with a hundred tanks filled with different kinds of zebrafish, all using a very sensitive water system that checks pressure and temperature. He moved all of the fish over to the science center in a new room with a new water system.

Q: How long have you been working in Professor Trapani’s lab?

A: I’ve been interested in neuroscience for a very long time — since I first got to Amherst. I did SURF [Summer Science Undergraduate Research Fellowship]my sophomore year in the Trepani lab. I got very lucky because I was able to test out which projects I was interested in in the lab. I always knew I wanted to write a thesis, so I guess working in the lab during SURF gave me a little step forward to be able to learn the techniques that I used for my research.

Q: How has your thesis advisor helped you with your research?

A: Professor Trapani taught my Introduction to Neuroscience class, and I loved him so much as a professor. He is honestly one of the most passionate, kind, charismatic professors ever, and he is in love with his research. This made me interested in his work, and when I did SURF in his lab, I had time to test out his ongoing projects and expand on two previous theses that his lab had already done on the lateral line system —  I had to read the old projects 17 times!

Q: How does your thesis connect to other work that you’ve done at Amherst?

A: A lot of the neuroscience classes have helped me get experience and background knowledge for working in labs. With that in-class experience, you get to know terms like “in-field potentials” and how to record information from certain neurons. I definitely feel like I got a head start in approaching a neuroscience thesis from my classes and my time doing SURF. Additionally, last summer I got an internship at Yale’s Epilepsy Center, and my work had to do with a lot of the connections between startle responses, schizophrenia and epilepsy. Seeing how these things tie together and viewing startle responses from a clinical perspective versus my normal lab perspective gave me a lot of insight.

Q: What research did you do for your thesis outside of being in a lab?

A: Because my research was mainly done in the lab, something that I learned to do was to read a bunch of advanced neuro papers that were coming out. Especially considering that I haven’t taken too many neuroscience classes, being able to read and comprehend advanced research papers and connect them to my project’s findings and conclusions was a big part of what I did outside of the lab. I would say most of the research that I did was in the lab.

Q: How do you recommend future thesis writers manage their time?

A: My biggest advice — and I’m really glad I did this — is to not procrastinate and manage your time well. I advise that if you have thoughts about writing your thesis early on at Amherst, like I did, definitely try to go ahead and create a schedule where your senior workload is on the lighter side. I took most of my major requirements earlier on, which made my sophomore and junior years harder, but you should try to create a lighter senior year schedule, especially considering that you will also be applying for jobs and possibly taking grad school entrance exams. 

This year, all of the research labs shut down because of COVID-19, and students just had to pause their research; something so unexpected like that is a reason why you want to stay on top of your work. If you’re writing a lab-based thesis, getting all the lab work done the first semester frees up your time to analyze your results the second semester. I would also recommend taking breaks in your work — I never did thesis work on the weekends, which I think helped my progress when I would come back to my work.

Q: What has been the hardest part about writing a thesis?

A: When the COVID-19 outbreak shut everything down, I had to take a hard pause on my research. This was paired with me spending my last few weeks at Amherst saying goodbye and stressing about packing up. There were so many experiments that I had wanted to get to, and now a lot of my thesis mentions “what I would’ve done if I had the time.” Not having the closure that I wanted and having to fill up the gaps made it hard to find motivation and focus. I’ve been able to pull through and focus on writing my thesis based on the data that I do have.

Q: What is the most rewarding part about writing a thesis?

A: The discovery is the best part. Initially, I had learned a lot of research techniques from doing SURF, I had a solid research hypothesis, and I had a little head start on collecting my data. After my initial collection, I made a lot of new discoveries. We found a bimodal distribution that my advisor had not expected to see, which made my hypotheses more complex, leading to more data collection and more discoveries. My thesis went from not only recording and finding averages of time to trying to explain and test out hypotheses of new weird observations that we started finding. The discoveries made me want to keep digging deeper and deeper, which made the late nights and extensive work worth it. My thesis became a puzzle I had fun solving. I also feel like I learned a lot about how to be independent and how to come up with my own ideas and explanations from my findings and previous research. Overall, I gained a huge sense of ownership on my project, which is something that makes me very proud. I am so proud of how far I got. Choosing a topic that I was passionate about really helped this. I recommend doing research to make sure you find something that you’re passionate about — it makes the experience that much more rewarding.

Q: What’s been essential to your success in writing a thesis?

A: I want to shout out Professor Trapani! He was such an essential part of my success in writing my thesis, and I can’t thank him enough for all he’s done. Even through all of this, any time I wanted to Skype or talk about anything, he was there. He’s pushed me to become independent and figure out things on my own, but at the same time, I never hesitated to ask him for help with either my thesis or anything personal I was struggling with. You can see his passion and love for his research in his eyes, and it’s contagious. Professor Trapani is definitely one of the main reasons that I was able to do my thesis.