The Columns

Hormones, Fat and Infertility Annie Jeckovich ’18 is studying the effects of obesity on reproduction in W&L’s Fat Rat lab.

— by on July 10th, 2017

Annie Jeckovich ’18

“This experience has confirmed my love for science and informed me that I am on the right path. Research was never something I was seriously considering after medical school — I want to go into surgery or pediatric care — but this opportunity to fully immerse myself in research has been rewarding.”

—Annie Jeckovich ’18

Hometown: Houston, Texas
Major: Integrated Engineering — Chemistry, Pre-Medical

Q: What is your summer research project?

I am a member of one of the Fat Rat labs. My lab is studying how fat affects the reproductive system. The growing obesity rate in the United States prompts us, and many other scientists, to ask these questions.

In the past, Dr. Natalia Toporikova’s lab has used a high-fat, high-sugar (HFHS) diet to induce polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) in a rodent model. We observed and analyzed how changes in hormone patterns lead to the development of PCOS. This summer we will focus more generally on how fat affects the reproductive system. Instead of using a HFHS diet model, we are studying aged female rats — their hormone levels, brains, ovaries and fat pads. The questions we are focusing on are: what types of hormones does adipose (fat) tissue secrete? Where do these hormones travel, and how do they interact with the brain, the pituitary and the ovaries?

Q: What does an average day for you look like?

It’s hard to say what an average day looks like in my lab. We had animals at the beginning of the summer, and when working with animals, they are both your priority and responsibility. When we had rats, my typical day would involve smearing the rats with Dr. Toporikova at 9 a.m. every day to determine the stage of the estrous cycle for each rat. We’d do a preliminary analysis of the smears, stain the slides, and then image them. In the afternoons, I would run either immunocytochemistry ICC on brain slices from last summer’s animals or work with ImageJ, our adipocyte (fat cell) counting software, to develop a protocol for quantifying adipocyte size and proliferation in our animals. Right now, I assist with immunohistochemistry (IHC), image POMC neurons and analyze adipocytes with computer software. I have begun learning Python, a computer coding language and will begin work on creating a model for the estradiol surge.

Q: What was the most interesting thing you have learned while working on this project?

I have gotten the opportunity to learn numerous lab procedures and techniques this summer. One of the most fascinating things I have learned on this project is that estradiol, a hormone we study relating to reproduction, utilizes both positive and negative feedback in the reproductive cycle. No one truly understands how the switch between positive and negative feedback occurs. I know that won’t sound fascinating to many people, but as someone who is working on creating a model for the estradiol surge in the rodent model, I find it fascinating.

 Q: What was the biggest challenge you faced?

I think one of the bigger challenges I have faced this summer is the trial and error of the lab process. You can work hard, but as Dr. Toporikova says, some procedures and protocols speak to you, and others do not.

For instance, ICC does not speak to me, nor does mounting brain slices after running ICC, though it calls to one of my lab partners, Zach Brandt ’19. Slicing fat is a nightmare for me (and almost everyone else), but Ryann Carpenter ’20, another lab partner, simply excels. I’ve found that by being offered the opportunity to try different procedures and techniques I have found many I am successful with and truly do enjoy — IHC, imaging brain slices, and working with software for adipocyte analysis, for example. By having a lab professor who encourages us to pursue what we enjoy, our team has fallen into a wonderfully productive dynamic. In a sense, we work together to pull each other’s weight to make the project successful.

 Q: Have you had any mentors during this time?

Naturally, my lab professor has served as a mentor to me during this time. Dr. Toporikova has worked hard to give us the opportunity to try a range of tasks within the lab. She truly wants every student who works for her to enjoy what they are doing within the lab and has given us all the opportunity to try (and fail) at different lab procedures.

Q: Has this experience impacted your studies or future plans in any way?

This experience has confirmed my love for science and informed me that I am on the right path. Research was never something I was seriously considering after medical school — I want to go into surgery or pediatric care — but this opportunity to fully immerse myself in research has been rewarding.

Q: How did W&L prepare you for this experience?

Previous experience from the 11 labs I have taken at W&L have taught me the ins and outs of the scientific process, which helped me in my first few weeks of research. Additionally, the smaller class sizes W&L offers helped me grow accustomed to working closely with my peers. This has been beneficial working in a more intimate lab setting.

Q: Why is this kind of experience important to W&L students?

I have found it very rewarding to be able to spend time with fellow students and professors outside the school year. One of the benefits of W&L is the focus on creating strong relationships with your professor. The summer research program has allowed me to strengthen some of these relationships.

I have loved having the opportunity to truly immerse myself in research, without the distraction of extracurricular responsibilities and classes. During the school year, students sometimes let research fall secondary to academic classes, so to be in the lab over the summer is something I really enjoy, as it has allowed me to focus my attention fully on research.

Additionally, this kind of experience is important to W&L students wishing to pursue a career in research or medicine as it teaches you to interact in intimate lab groups and settings, and allows for collaboration with your peers.