When we think of neuroscience, the first thing that comes to mind is the human brain. The very complex brain. The brain that allows scientists to build vehicles to go to other planets. The brain that drives artists to create masterpieces in many art forms. The brain that enables us to have such fine motor movements that we can clean up the chocolate spread from a knife completely with our tongue, without creating a gory scene (I love chocolate, no secret there).
It is also the same brain that makes us forget even our own kids that we looked after for decades. Or the brain that causes us to be addicted to a drug, even when it costs us our work, friends, and even family. The brain that makes us feel pain for no obvious reason. The brain that works wonders when it functions well but can have devastating outcomes when it does not.
That's why neuroscientists are amazed by the brain and try to understand how it works. And what we can do when it doesn't work properly. However, it is such a complex black box that we have to start simple. Luckily, evolution paves us an easy route for scientific research. So many mechanisms are evolutionarily conserved that we can study simpler organisms to better understand more complex ones.
When I decided to study neuroscience, I was not aware of the significance of animal research. So I was very surprised when I read a study that used fruit flies as a model animal for Parkinson's disease. It turns out there are many studies like that. Of course, the study done on fruit flies will not give us the solution that so many patients are looking forward to, but it will present a block of knowledge to build upon.
That brings me to zebrafish. Currently, I am doing my Master's of Science in Biology at Dr. Tuan Bui's lab that works on motor movements. And the model animal I am using is zebrafish. The tiny, little, striped, transparent fish. My research is computational modelling of spinal control of different swimming speeds of larval zebrafish. Exciting, isn't it? Every day I am learning more about these animals, as well as motor movement in general. Also, by using computational modelling, I am contributing to the Replacement part of the "Replacement, Reduction, and Refinement" principles of animal research. I am trying to understand how motor neurons and interneurons interact with each other and result in different swimming patterns. I read tons (like every researcher out there) to learn what others know or don't know about zebrafish. It gets complicated at times, and it is challenging. But the idea that my work can add a crumble of knowledge to the bucket of information the scientists rely upon is very exciting.
When I decided to go back to school at a relatively later age, I was warned that academia isn't easy. It is not! Learning is so rewarding though; it is worth facing all the challenges. My partner for the next couple of years will be zebrafish along this path, and I’m loving it!
Blog by Emine Topcu