Rising senior conducts neurological research at Johns Hopkins
July 8, 2010 By Leigh Ivey
neurobiology of peripheral neuropathies and the development
and regeneration of the peripheral nervous system at the Johns
Hopkins Hospital campus for the School of Medicine.
While living in Baltimore for the summer, Cocanougher has paid
several visits to Washington, D.C. and other nearby cities.
On any given day this summer, Centre College student Ben Cocanougher ’11 of Springfield, Ky., can be found doing any number of scientific activities: genotyping mice, cutting and staining tissues, counting axons, working with rats, participating in a journal club or attending weekly lab meetings.
Working in the neurology department with Dr. Ahmet Hoke, Cocanougher is spending the summer conducting research in Baltimore, Maryland, at the Johns Hopkins Hospital campus for the School of Medicine. The research on which he is collaborating focuses on the neurobiology of peripheral neuropathies and the development and regeneration of the peripheral nervous system (PNS).
(A peripheral neuropathy is a failure of the nerves that carry information to and from the brain and spinal cord. This produces pain, loss of sensation, and inability to control muscles.)
And taking part in this research at such a renowned research facility has made for an incredible summer of learning.
“The lab is much larger than I’m used to,” Cocanougher says, “and includes two postdocs, two research associates, two research technicians, an MD/Ph.D student and two undergraduate students. I’ve worked mostly on Dr. Hoke's studies on the peripheral neuropathies associated with diabetes and chemotherapy-induced peripheral neuropathy caused by Taxol, a common treatment for breast and ovarian cancers.”
Each day brings new responsibilities, he says, “since most procedures involve a week to work through from start to end. Any given day, I could be in the lab, in the animal facility working with rats and mice, in a weekly journal club or in a weekly lab meeting with the Hoke lab.”
Having now been at Johns Hopkins for more than a month, Cocanougher has mastered most of the techniques for the day-to-day procedures and is now enjoying working independently in the lab.
“The confidence and competence that I gained while working with Dr. Joe Workman and Sarah Swauger ’11 at Centre last summer prepared me to work effectively in the lab,” he says.
The research he performed last summer was conducted quite differently than that on which he’s collaborating now.
“At Centre, Dr. Workman focused on allowing Sarah and me to learn how to truly do research. He chose the topic, but beyond that, Sarah and I were free to choose the direction of the research. We also did all of the data analysis ourselves, which Dr. Workman would double check.”
This summer, however, Cocanougher and his fellow researchers are helping with a study that has been ongoing for four years. “I’m adding some of the last pieces of data to the study, which will require the entire summer to complete,” he says.
At Johns Hopkins, a research technician in the Hoke lab has been teaching Cocanougher how to work with the mice and rats involved in the animal studies. “I’ve really enjoyed seeing the procedures all the way through,” he says. “When I genotype mice, I’m able to take the tissue sample myself, digest it, purify the DNA, amplify it using polymerase chain reaction (PCR), separate by gel electrophoresis and visualize using UV light to determine if the mice have a particular gene of interest.”
Because he has gained an extensive scientific background at Centre, Cocanougher felt prepared for such challenging research.
“My BMB courses have always stressed reading primary research articles, which I first assumed was simply a cruel way of inducing a migraine,” he says. “Now that I’ve gotten comfortable reading and comprehending these articles, I’m much more prepared to work with the labs that are regularly publishing these papers.”
Working at a major research institution has given him “a much greater respect for the amount of time, effort and resources required to run a proper experiment. During our college courses, we read many primary research articles, but learning about mouse models makes a lot more sense after seeing and handling the mice for yourself.”
But summer at Johns Hopkins is not all work and no play.
“I’m one of 20 students in the Basic Science Institute Summer Internship Program, and there are two other similar programs on campus at the same time,” Cocanougher says. “I’ve made friends from Peru, China, Puerto Rico and Zimbabwe, along with students from all over the United States. We also have plenty of time outside of the lab to enjoy Baltimore and Washington D.C.”
And although Cocanougher hopes to be a physician after medical school, he says that “participating in research last summer and this summer makes me confident that I’d like to continue being involved in research in the future.”