Among the ~9,000 scientists we hosted this year, a number of them participated in multiple meetings and/or courses. Kicking off the 2018 edition of our Repeat Visitor series is Tatiana Schnieder, an assistant professor of clinical neurobiology at Columbia University and an adjunct assistant professor at Hunter College. Tatiana divides her work between two research labs – the neuropathology laboratory of Dr. Andrew Dwork at Columbia University Irvin Medical Center and epigenetics laboratory of Dr. Fatemeh G. Haghighi at Mount Sinai School of Medicine. This year, Tatiana took part in the 83rd CSHL Symposium on Quantitative Biology and joined the ranks of both the CSHL Protein course (Expression, Purification, & Analysis of Proteins & Protein Complexes) and The Genome Access Course (TGAC). Previously, she presented a poster during the Glia in Health & Disease meeting in 2016 as well as attended Blood Brain Barrier that same year. We reached out to Tatiana to chat with her about her experiences in CSHL meetings and courses, and to learn more about what keeps her coming back to campus.
Tell us about your research interests.
My research is focused on the question of brain-periphery interactions in psychiatric disorders. To be more specific, I am currently investigating whether or not the reported relationship between suicide and central and peripheral inflammation is mediated by changes in blood-brain barrier (BBB) permeability.
How did you decide to make this the focus of your research?
During my doctoral training, I investigated prefrontal white matter microglia in individuals who died by suicide; and although I did not find any significant differences in microglial activation between suicides and non-suicides, suicide decedents had significantly higher densities of juxtavascular phagocytic cells in dorsal white matter than diagnostically-matched non-suicide decedents. Interestingly, however, studies of animal models of psychiatric symptoms have attributed maladaptive behavior in rodents to peripheral inflammation and to the influx of peripheral immune cells into the brain parenchyma. These findings and my own findings in postmortem human brains prompted me to investigate the involvement of peripheral immune cells in pathology associated with completed suicide. Further research revealed that non-parenchymal immune cells do not contribute to the increase in perivascular cell density that we observed in suicide; which suggests that resident microglial cells -- rather than non-parenchymal immune cells -- cross-communicate immune responses between the periphery and central nervous system in suicide. Moreover, those who died by suicide had a lower surface area density of microvessels in dorsal white matter -- the same brain region where I found increased densities of perivascular phagocytes. Cumulatively, these findings indicated that changes in the properties of the neurovascular unit could be contributing to pathological changes that lead to suicide. This piqued my interest in the role of BBB in psychiatric disorders. The goal of my current project is to determine if completed suicide is associated with transcriptional, epigenetic, or protein changes in the neurovascular unit.
What led you to apply for the Protein course and how has it contributed to your work?
I applied to the Protein course to find answers to the challenges I faced during the preparation of my samples for HPLC/mass spectrometry. To assess changes in the expression level of key proteins crucial for BBB function and identify novel differentially expressed proteins, I use HPLC/mass spectrometry proteomics to interrogate protein expression profiles in isolated microvessels. To investigate BBB changes in psychiatric disorders and suicide specifically, I wanted to optimize a microvessel isolation protocol from postmortem frozen human tissue. It was important for me to develop the best method for the extraction of cytosolic, membrane, and transmembrane proteins that seal a gap between the brain endothelial cells. The two-week course gave me a lot of hands-on practice in protein isolation and, through extensive communication with the Instructors and use of the course materials, I was able to come up with the optimal protocol for my project. My main takeaway from the course is that it is imperative to learn as much as possible about your protein/s of interest before you start your experiments. Know your target well because what may work for one protein can be detrimental to another.
How about TGAC? Why did you register for it and what is your key takeaway?
My BBB project involves data that will require knowledge of bioinformatics, and I want to understand what goes into the analyses of the data I produce at the bench. I took TGAC to start learning how to analyze high-throughput data obtained using next-generation sequencing methods and mass spectrometry. As for my key takeaway: Apply what you learn in the course without delay. To acquire a new skill, one needs to practice often – if not daily – therefore it is important to “play” with your data so as to avoid forgetting what you pick up from the course.
The two courses have very different formats: the Protein course consists of hands-on training in a laboratory setting while The Genome Access Course is purely computational. What can you share about the differences or similarities between your experiences in the two courses?
The two courses I took were indeed very different: TGAC was a short two-day course, whereas Protein course was two weeks long and so requires a completely different level of commitment. What is expected of you is also different: TGAC course is mostly lecture-based with some hands-on computer work, and the Protein course is mostly lab-based with lectures sprinkled throughout the day and evening. You cannot really choose to opt out, and by the end of the first week you already feel like you are a part of a team. In fact, working in a team and as a team will be the main mode of learning in a longer course. Irrespective of which course you decide to take, you will be taught by the top experts in the field within a friendly and supportive learning environment, where you will always have the ability to discuss and clarify concepts that may be confusing. It was an amazing experience: I was challenged to step out of my comfort zone, which is how personal and professional growth happens.
The focus of the CSHL Symposium changes annually. This year its topic was “Brains & Behavior: Order & Disorder in the Nervous System,” with an emphasis on neuroscience and related technologies. Besides the overall topic, what attracted you to participate in it?
Once you graduate, it is easy to focus on your specific area of research and, sometimes, you lose sight of the bigger picture. I strive to prevent this from happening to me. As a college professor, I need to stay abreast of the new discoveries in the field of brain research, and attending the Symposium was a perfect way to catch up with the latest findings. It provided a diverse range of topics and speakers from top-notch brain research labs. When this Symposium hones in on this topic again, I would recommend aspiring neuroscientists to attend. If you haven’t yet decided what you want to dedicate your research to or are looking to expand your network, this is a great conference.
Since you’ve now experienced both meeting and course life at CSHL, what differences or similarities did you notice about the two program types?
The courses had a much more focused agenda and required a few prerequisites so you are more likely to meet people who share similar professional or academic experiences as you. The meetings, on the other hand, were eclectic and brought together people from very diverse backgrounds. But in both instances, expect to be surrounded by like-minded people enthusiastic about science and the discoveries it brings.
What did you like most about your meeting and courses this year?
I am very lucky to live a short train ride away from CSHL. Since the first CSHL meeting I attended in 2016 on Glia in Health and Disease, I keep coming back because the quality of the meetings and courses have always been stellar, and the content and organization of the events always meet my expectations. In fact, I am looking forward to attending the Blood Brain Barrier meeting in 2019.
Both the Protein course and TGAC will return to the Laboratory in 2019; and applications are already being accepted. Apply to the Protein course by January 31, 2019 here.
Thank you to Tatiana for sharing with us her experience, and we look forward to having her back at the Laboratory again. To meet other featured scientists - and discover the wide range of science that takes part in a CSHL meeting or course - go here and here.