Medical student searches for dynamic cellular organelles in molecular memory lab
When asked what was one thing that surprised him about his four-year research project as a student at the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine (VTCSOM), Dinesh Lal answered without hesitation: “How much patience was required.”
Working in the lab of Shannon Farris, assistant professor at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC, Lal undertook the challenge of looking for a specific structure, the Golgi apparatus, inside cells of the brain’s hippocampus. This organelle assembles, modifies, and packages protein and lipid molecules, facilitating their delivery to their final destination in the cell. However, it currently is unknown whether the Golgi apparatus is present in hippocampal neuron’s dendrites, the tree-like branches that receive electrochemical signals from other neurons known as synaptic transmission
“My overarching goal was to understand the mechanism regulating local protein translation and localization in dendrites,” Lal said. “Whether or not the Golgi apparatus is present in dendrites is controversial in the field. I wanted to see if I could answer that question with more certainty.”
That research question spurred Lal to learn more about the hippocampus, which helps encode new memories of events, or episodic memory, particularly spatial information enabling one to remember when and where an experience occurred.
“Local protein translation is critical for the synaptic changes that are required for learning and memory in the hippocampus,” he said.
Using brain tissue from mice, Lal meticulously searched for the Golgi apparatus.
“It was very time-consuming,” he said. “It gave me a new perspective as to why no one has been able to derive a definitive answer.”
Lal did not find exactly what he was searching for, but his research did spur other avenues for investigation.
“While we didn’t find the canonical Golgi apparatus in our dendrites, we did find an abundance of other Golgi-related proteins in these areas, raising the novel possibility that these Golgi-like satellite organelles, called Golgi outposts, are actually performing the function of the canonical Golgi apparatus in these specialized locations,” he said.
Lal credited Farris, who is also an assistant professor in the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine Department of Biomedical Sciences and Pathobiology and in the VTCSOM Department of Internal Medicine, for supporting his efforts and helping him complete a quality research project. Lal has presented his research at two virtual conferences, including the Society for Neuroscience, the premier international neuroscience organization.
“Dr. Farris is always there to hear me out if I’m struggling with something in my research,” he said. “She has high expectations, and I appreciate that.”
Farris praised Lal’s meticulous approach to his research. “Dinesh was a great addition to the lab,” Farris said. “He showed genuine interest and enthusiasm in the questions we were asking and it reflected in his high-quality work.”
VTCSOM has a rigorous research curriculum that helps prepare physician thought leaders as part of its mission. All students are expected to a conduct original, hypothesis-driven research project before graduation. This requirement ensures that students are immersed in the language, culture, and practice of research.
“It is critical for the next generation of physicians to meaningfully engage in hypothesis-driven research in order to expose them to how researchers approach and address scientific questions with modern tools,” Farris said. “The hope is that they learn skills and forge connections that they can capitalize on later in their careers as scientist physicians. Collaborations between researchers and physicians is what drives innovation in treatments and health care.”
Many students at VTCSOM say they chose the school because of its emphasis on research, but Lal chose it for a different reason.
“I liked that it was a small school with a lot of learning done in small groups,” he said. “That was tailored more to my needs as a learner. I also loved Roanoke. It was the perfect place to go to medical school. It’s quiet, but there are always things to do.”
After graduation in May, Lal hopes to pursue a residency in otolaryngology.
Lal will give a presentation on his project at VTCSOM’s annual Medical Student Research Symposium, which is from noon to 6 p.m. Friday, March 25. Seven of the students in the class who were selected to receive Letters of Distinction for their project, including Lal, will give oral presentations. The rest of the Class of 2022 will provide poster presentations on their projects.