Undergraduate plays key role in groundbreaking neuroscience research

In the foreground a young man wearing a white checked shirt peers into a microscope. Behind him, a young woman in a head covering and purple lab gloves looks at a slide she's holding. A computer, files, and lab equipment appear in the background.

Senior zoology major Matt Deer (in foreground) and doctoral student Aminata Coulibaly work in the lab of biology professor Dr. Lori Isaacson.

Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a neurological disease that affects 2.5 million people worldwide. As MS is a “silent disease,” many people who have multiple sclerosis do not look different from any other person, but suffer from a variety of invisible, unpredictable symptoms. What is predictable about multiple sclerosis, though, is irregularly functioning oligodendrocytes.

According to Miami University senior and zoology major Matt Deer, oligodendrocytes “provide an insulating cover of myelin around axons, facilitating communication between neurons.” The loss of properly functioning oligodendrocytes is linked not only to multiple sclerosis, but also to mood disorders, schizophrenia, and other illnesses.

“Since oligodendrocytes play such an important role in the normal functioning of the nervous system,” says Deer, “it’s crucial to understand the biology of these cells if we want to develop therapies to treat these conditions.”

Deer’s knowledge about oligodendrocytes comes from his work in the lab of Miami University biology professor Lori Isaacson. Together with graduate student Aminata Coulibaly, Isaacson and Deer have been studying the distribution and phenotype of oligodendrocytes in the spinal cords of adult Sprague Dawley rats.

In Isaacson’s lab, Deer has gained experience that is unusual for an undergraduate. When Isaacson needed new data on the cervical level of the spinal cord for an article she hoped to publish, she turned to Deer, who had by then been working with her and Coulibaly for nearly two years and was well-versed in the required techniques.

“We asked Matt to learn everything he could about the cervical spinal cord, learn how to identify structures specific to the cervical level, and then make slices of the cervical level, carry out experiments, do the morphometric analyses, make the graphs and figures, collect images, and then help write up the results section of the manuscript and add to the discussion of his data,” says Isaacson.

The article, which lists Deer as a co-author alongside Isaacson and Coulibaly, was recently published in the journal Brain Research. One of the microscopic images of the spinal cord from their article was selected for the cover of the journal.

“I have had a lot of undergraduates in the lab,” said Isaacson, “and most of them do not complete a body of work that earns them a co-authorship.”

Some of this was luck, she says – Deer was in the right place at the right time. But there was more to it than that.

“It takes a lot of motivation to collect the amount of data we needed in the amount of time we had and Matt had that,” says Isaacson.

Isaacson also gives credit to Coulibaly, who she says has worked closely with Deer over the past three years. “She taught him all of the techniques he used in this study. She’s been overseeing his day-to-day activities for quite a while. This project would not have been possible without her.”

In addition to the article in Brain Research, Deer also had the opportunity to present the results of his research at a Washington, DC event called Posters on the Hill. This annual showcase gives Miami undergraduate students an opportunity to share their work with members of the United States Congress.

Deer says he’s always had an interest in science, particularly neuroscience. “I like solving complex puzzles, being able to understand this type of advanced material, and applying my knowledge to further advance research,” he says.

He appreciates that Miami encourages undergraduate participation in research, acknowledging that his ability to work in Isaacson’s lab early was a key factor in his achievements.

After graduating from Miami this coming spring, Deer plans to attend podiatry school, where he hopes to conduct research to advance therapeutic strategies and improve medical technology.

Written by Nicole Antonucci, Communications Intern, Office for the Advancement of Research & Scholarship, Miami University. 

Photo of Matt Deer and Aminata Coulibaly by Miami University Photo Services.  Photo of neuron GerryShaw via Wikimedia Commons, used under Creative Commons license.

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