Hey! My name is Michael Lans and I’m a rising junior at Whitman College majoring in Physics and hoping to pursue a 3-2 combined program in mechanical engineering. This summer I’ve been interning at the University of Washington’s Stevens Lab. The lab is focused on developing artificial human tissues for medical applications. They’ve worked with a variety of different types of tissue, and last year an image of a 3D printed vascular network created in the lab was featured on the front cover of Science Magazine.
My internship is focused on the liver. I’m assisting a graduate student who is researching ways to image human liver tissue in 3D at both a cellular and structural level. 3D images make it easy to see structures on a computer, where you can rotate them and zoom in and out. However, they are large and hard to print or publish in a paper. My internship project is working with these 3D images to produce 2D snapshots which effectively convey the three-dimensional structures they represent.
Visualizing the cellular structure of the liver in this way is important because many liver diseases are associated with structural changes or damage to the liver which impair its function. Understanding and being able to compare healthy and diseased liver tissue will allow us to further understand and explore the functions of the liver. Traditionally, tissue samples were imaged by slicing them into thin sections and then imaging each separately. However, even with an incredibly sharp slicing tool, some damage is done to the cells and tissue structure. In addition, while this technique works well for looking at tissue on a single plane, it is harder to get a sense of the three-dimensional structure of the tissue. The 3D images I’m working with are produced through a combination of tissue clearing and immunostaining. Tissue clearing is a process in which chemicals are used to remove all of the pigment from a tissue sample while preserving its structure, turning it into what looks like a clear blob. Immunostaining uses fluorescent dyes which bind to proteins which can then be seen at specific wavelengths under a microscope. This allows for separate visualization of cell nuclei and membranes, as well as specific types of cells like those which form the walls of veins and arteries.
With University of Washington labs closed due to the coronavirus pandemic, my internship has had to be virtual rather than in person. This has meant that I haven’t been able to see the actual tissue samples and processes used to image them. It has also created new challenges, such as needing to remotely connect to lab computers in order to access data and software. While unfortunate, these challenges are shared by everyone in the lab, and it is inspiring to see how much is still being accomplished.
Experiences like Michael’s are made possible by the Whitman Internship Grant, which provides funding for students to participate in unpaid internships at both for-profit and non-profit organizations. To learn how you could secure a Whitman Internship Grant or host a Whitman intern at your organization, click here or contact Assistant Director for Internship Programs Mitzy Rodriguez