Future Reflections        Convention Issue 2013

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A Passion for Research

by Mark Colasurdo

From the Editor: Mark Colasurdo is currently a junior at Cornell University. He was the recipient of a 2013 national scholarship from the National Federation of the Blind.

Mark Colasurdo conducts a laboratory experimentI grew up in a small town called Lacey on the Jersey Shore. It's a suburban/rural area with mostly working-class families. One of my favorite things about where I grew up was being so close to nature. There were always plenty of outdoorsy things to do.

I went to regular elementary and middle school like anybody else, taking a particular interest in science and math. As a result of my studies and my growing love of nature, I tested into and enrolled in the Marine Academy of Technology and Environmental Science (MATES). MATES is a local magnet school that offers a central math and science curriculum focused in the areas of marine and environmental science. I was challenged to think critically, I developed a very dedicated work ethic, and I formed a still deeper appreciation for the natural world. I think my experience at MATES helped me become who I am today.

All the while, I had been growing up with several eye problems. Beginning in third grade I developed various forms of glaucoma, had a few retinal detachments, and experienced other vision-related complications. However, whenever anything went wrong, there was always an eye surgery to correct the problem. I'd go back to school and resume my daily life as an almost sighted person.

All that changed during my sophomore year of high school. I was involved in a motor collision that resulted in a retinal detachment in my right eye—which, at the time, was my good eye. Two months and three surgeries later, I was totally blind in my right eye, and I had little vision in my left eye due to earlier glaucoma damage.

At this point, my parents and I began to learn about the NFB, and we researched its three training centers. My mom did some advocacy and negotiation with our school district, and I was given the opportunity to attend the Louisiana Center for the Blind (LCB). In the fall semester of my junior year of high school, my mother and I set out for Ruston to learn more about blindness and to get me training in the alternative techniques to sight.

Since I only had time to attend the LCB for a semester, I took an abbreviated schedule. I took classes in Braille, access technology, cane travel, and woodshop. Upon completion of the program in December 2009, I returned to school my spring semester equipped with the blindness skills necessary to pursue my ever-increasing passion for math and science, especially biology.

Mark ColasurdoToday I am a junior at Cornell University, majoring in biological engineering with a minor in neuroscience. My current career goal is to become a research scientist. I hope to attend graduate school and earn a PhD in biomedical engineering, studying tissue engineering and regenerative medicine. Sometimes I go back and forth on whether I'd like to do an MD/PhD program. I think that would be cool because I would be able to translate the advances found in the lab to actual clinical applications rather than having my work stop at research. I have time to figure that out, though.

During my sophomore year of college, preceding this past summer, I worked in a genetics lab for a little while. I learned some of the techniques on the biological end of bioengineering, such as running gel electrophoresis, polymerase chain reactions, and cell cultures. As part of an undergraduate research team, our goal was to determine the function of a specific gene in a bacteriophage virus. We deleted the gene and observed the effects the deletion had on the virus's phenotype. Although the findings were inconclusive, this was my first experience doing real research and formulating original ideas.

That summer, I spent my time doing research primarily on cartilage. It was actually preliminary research toward the work I'm doing now, which I'll explain in a minute. My research last summer entailed examining the cartilage from bovine fetlock joints. The fetlock is the hoof of the cow. We got samples from local slaughterhouses in the morning, which were freshly cut limbs from several different cows. We would take the limbs back to the lab in a garbage bag and proceed to dissect them further, often while they were still warm and bleeding. This could result in blood spurting across the lab whenever we'd cut a vein by accident. On one unfortunate occasion, it splattered onto a girl's clothes. Once we removed the skin from the bone of the leg, we sawed the bone in half at the joint to get at the cartilage. This process sometimes proved a little tricky, as the bones were very slippery from all the various fluids one can find in an amputated leg.

Currently I am working in a tissue engineering lab under Dr. Minglin Ma, and I have my own original research project. I am attempting to fabricate biocompatible, nanopolymeric scaffolds on which to grow cartilage cells. The scaffolds will serve as a backbone for the cells to grow on. Theoretically, with continual cell growth and proliferation, the structure will become a functional, synthetic piece of cartilage tissue. If this proves to be the case, the artificial tissue can be used in clinical applications to replace damaged cartilage tissue, as cartilage tissue lacks capacities to repair and regenerate itself. So far, since the beginning of the semester, I have successfully fabricated a few scaffolds, but I have not yet tried culturing stem cells onto them yet, as I became wrapped up in exams and projects about two weeks ago. I was awarded a Biology Research Fellowship from Cornell and the National Science Foundation (NSF), which will fund me for another summer of research in Dr. Ma's lab.

I have been using a few different pieces of technology to conduct research. Primarily, I use a laptop with JAWS to record and analyze my data. As far as actual research goes, I have been using a method called electrospinning to synthesize scaffolds out of nanoscale polymers. This device consists of a syringe pump, which pumps the polymer/solvent solution through a hose and out of a needle tip. An electrode from a high voltage source is attached to the tip of the needle to charge the polymer as it exits the nozzle. The other, oppositely charged electrode is clipped to a piece of tinfoil. It electrically draws the polymer onto the foil, where it collects to form the scaffold. This process is largely inaccessible. I use my residual vision along with some visual aids from time to time, such as a magnifying glass, to assist in manipulation of the system.

Fortunately, many of the people I work with are very open-minded, and they welcome diversity in the scientific community. As scientists, they are excited to share their work with others. They make accommodations so that I can contribute and carve my own path within the field.

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