Thinking About Thinking

April 3, 2015

Amanda Nagy

Senior Weelic Chong in the lab of Assistant Professor Gunnar Kwakye.
Senior Weelic Chong won the 2015 Sigma Xi undergraduate division award for his video presentation on neuroscience research in the lab of Assistant Professor Gunnar Kwakye.
Photo credit: Courtesy of Weelic Chong

Parkinson's Disease x Cadmium

One of the highlights of faculty-student collaboration is the opportunity for students to present their research at conferences in their field. Within that realm, students typically showcase their work using the standard format of posters. Solid and reliable, the poster accomplishes what any PowerPoint slideshow can do, but with proportionately more hands-on effort and emphasis on public speaking. To wit: No poster presenter has ever been outstaged by cliché effects.

The scientific research society Sigma Xi raises the stakes a bit, challenging young scientists to develop their presenting skills online through a written abstract, technical slideshow, or personal video. For this endeavor, Weelic Chong, a senior majoring in biochemistry and neuroscience, won the 2015 Sigma Xi undergraduate division award for his video on the link between cadmium and other environmental factors and Parkinson’s Disease.

In his four-minute video, Chong delivers a mini science lesson that is relatable to the masses. As a research assistant for Assistant Professor of Neuroscience Gunnar Kwakye, he has collaborated on a project that investigates the way environmental factors, particularly cadmium (a heavy metal found in pesticides and batteries) can increase the risk for Parkinson’s, a neurodegenerative disease. Chong has been working in Kwakye’s lab for some 250 days (he’s counted, because he spends “practically every day in the lab”), yet viewers might be hard pressed to believe that Chong is an undergraduate—or that it was his first time making a video.

“To be honest, this is the first time I made a video that was not a Snapchat, so I had no experience,” says Chong. With a camera and a mic, he turned to the Oberlin College Media Center for software and lessons in filming and editing.

Chong says he was drawn to neuroscience because it’s a relatively new discipline that holds a lot of promise for real-world benefits. “I'm not the first person to be interested in thinking about thinking; it’s a natural fascination for lots of people. But in much of human history the time wasn't right, as we didn't have the right tools. As humans, we can now do a lot more than we could 50 years ago. Every month new tools are developed, and that helps us probe this oozy grey stuff between our ears.”

Regarding his collaboration with Kwakye, Chong says he values his mentorship. “One of the many things I have learned from him is the importance of seeking advice from mentors. We were recently at a toxicology conference in San Diego, and Professor Kwakye was chatting and receiving advice from his mentors—scientists at Vanderbilt [University] and Einstein College of Medicine. In the same way, I will continue to maintain this connection with Professor Kwakye after I graduate.

“Another thing I learned was the importance of being frugal and getting funding for experiments. Professor Kwakye tells me how much money each item costs. For example, four tiny vials of antibodies, each containing about 0.1mL of liquid, will cost more than a MacBook. I look forward to donating some funds to the lab when I am more financially stable, and I welcome alums to do the same.”

Chong, who is from Singapore, is applying for a combined MD/PhD program for fall 2016.

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