What's It Like Working in an IBD Lab?

Amy and Parsa are IBD patients, students at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), and members of the Foundation’s National Council of College Leaders (NCCL). Their experiences living with IBD has guided their academic and career interests and led both to volunteer in an IBD research lab at UCLA. In fact, that’s how they met!

We sat down with Amy and Parsa to learn more about their IBD stories.

Q: Tell us a little bit about yourselves.

Amy: My name is Amy Bugwadia, and I’m a senior undergraduate student at UCLA studying Political Science and Disability Studies with a pre-medical track. I was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis at age 10, in the midst of fifth grade. My personal experience with chronic illness and my involvement as co-chair of the Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation’s NCCL cultivated my appreciation for other aspects of healthcare. I’ve also been shaped by my experience working alongside Parsa in an IBD research lab at UCLA. I now aspire to be a physician working at the intersection of healthcare policy, patient care, and education!

Parsa: And I’m Parsa Iranmahboub. I’m a third-year bioengineering student at UCLA and also the education chair for the NCCL. I was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease when I was 8 years old. Similar to Amy, my experience with chronic illness and involvement with the IBD community has instilled in me a passion for medicine, healthcare, and biomedical devices. We are volunteer research assistants in the Pothoulakis Laboratory at the UCLA Vatche and Tamar Manoukian Division of Digestive Diseases Center for Inflammatory Bowel Diseases, and we conduct research under the supervision of Dr. Jill Hoffman.

Q: How did you get involved as research assistants?

Amy: I started volunteering at the Pothoulakis laboratory at the beginning of my freshman year - my first day of college was also my first day in the lab! I’ve always been fascinated with research, so when I chose UCLA for undergrad, I immediately started looking for IBD research opportunities. I scoured the websites of various labs and, although I wasn’t sure if there were any open positions, I emailed a researcher asking to meet and learn more about her work. That led to an interview, which turned into a volunteer position in the lab, and I’ve been here ever since!

Parsa: I became involved with IBD research towards the end of my freshman year. Although I was always interested in research, I had mostly focused on topics specific to my bioengineering major. But after I met someone on my floor who recently started volunteering at an IBD lab, I realized that no research project could match the amount of excitement I had for research directly related to my life as an IBD patient. So, I cold-emailed all the IBD labs at UCLA and expressed my deep interest in their research as someone affected by the disease and thus their work. And the rest is history!

Q: What does a typical day in the lab look like for you?

Amy & Parsa:  As undergraduate students, we typically come into lab between classes. We always check in with our mentor first to set action items for the day and update each other on our progress. Our lab does both in vivo (within living organisms, such as mice) and in vitro (outside a living organism, such as growing cells or tissue in a culture dish) research, so a typical day almost always varies. Some days, we follow and perform basic scientific protocols, like RNA extractions, cDNA synthesis, or polymerase chain reactions (PCR). Other days, we work directly with models, performing injections or dissections within the colon. We also prepare tissue samples to be mounted on slides, and sometimes we spend the whole day in the microscope room imaging and analyzing these slides for various indicators of disease. Additionally, our lab is involved in a STEM at UCLA outreach program, in which we work with a local non-profit to provide hands-on lab and mentoring experience to high school students from traditionally underserved communities. We help design and coordinate half-day programs for these students.

Q: What have you learned through this experience?

Amy: As someone living with IBD, it’s easy to take current treatment options for granted. However, experiencing the research process first-hand has given me a deep appreciation for other aspects of healthcare—the scientists and other professionals that make treatments possible. Additionally, having a chronic illness often comes with a feeling of powerlessness, something that I’ve struggled over this past decade living with ulcerative colitis. However, learning more about my own disease from a scientific perspective has been invaluable in helping me gain back more control by making a tangible difference in the field of IBD research.

Parsa: As a patient, having an opportunity to be involved with IBD research has given me an unbelievable appreciation for the hard work, dedication, and innovation that goes into finding a cure or at least better understanding the disease. But at the same time, it has given me an up-close account about how much we still do not know. Just like how it’s important to raise awareness about IBD and the struggles many patients face, it’s equally important to advocate and fundraise for medical research that help us close this knowledge gap.

Q: How does medical research help others living with IBD?

Amy & Parsa:  IBD is currently identified as a chronic, idiopathic disease, meaning that it’s a life-long illness with no one specific cause that’s been identified. As such, every aspect of IBD research is so integral to helping the scientific community gain more knowledge about the disease: its causes, its manifestations, and, ultimately, its cures. Every medication and treatment for IBD, prior to the clinical trial stage, was first developed in a basic research phase. Clinical trials are also an important part of the research process because, even after a new treatment is developed, it needs to be tested for safety and efficacy before approval. As such, money donated to the Foundation and raised through fundraising events, such as Take Steps and spin4 crohn’s & colitis cures, brings us one step closer to developing better treatments and finding cures by funding these research projects.

Q: How can other students become involved in something similar?

Amy & Parsa:  Many institutions of higher education, particularly undergraduate research universities like UCLA, have numerous opportunities to get involved with research. Colleges and universities typically have undergraduate research fairs, information sessions, and online portals to help students get involved, so make sure to check out your specific school’s resources. With any volunteer research position, it’s important to have a genuine interest in the researcher’s projects(s) and demonstrate your passion for those research topics. Most researchers will understand that as undergraduate students, you may not have had the opportunity to gain a significant amount of prior research experience. As such, don’t be afraid to reach out and cold-email a Principal Investigator (PI) about an open research position or just introduce yourself and ask to meet with the PI to learn more about their work. Also, if you know anyone volunteering in that lab, be sure to get their opinion about their experiences. Above all, if you’re passionate about IBD research or just want to learn more about the field, be willing to take that first step and put yourself out there - you never know what valuable experiences it could lead to!

Learn more about Amy, Parsa, and the Foundation’s NCCL by visiting our Campus Connection website.  

by Amy Bugwadia and Parsa Iranmahboub


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