Blog Harvey A. Friedman Center for Aging

Best of a bad situation: Discovering new interests and learning new skills

Written by Mateo Blair, B.A. candidate in Biochemistry at Washington University in St. Louis & participant in the 2020 Institute for Public Health Summer Research Program

The Covid-19 pandemic has made the past couple of months hectic. before I got news that it would be entirely virtual this summer, the Summer Research Program – Aging & Neurological Diseases Track was something I was really looking forward to. After completing the online version, however, I am incredibly glad to have partaken in the opportunity.

It is a testament to the creativity and ingenuity of the directors of the program for being able to incorporate the acquisition of seemingly unrelated but new, useful, and practical skills into a program that is entirely over zoom. Coding had always seen very interesting to me but also very daunting. The prospect of learning what is essentially a new language always felt too time-consuming and somewhat impractical for somebody who has no intention of being a computer scientist or web developer. Due to Covid, instead of spending my days in lab settings, I sat in front of my computer screen learning the R coding language. The introductory R workshop presented coding in a way that seemed not only manageable to me, but also very applicable to data science. This brief introduction to R was enough to convince me that fully mastering the language would not only be extremely beneficial to my academic future, but it was something I enjoyed — I thought it was fun.

Going into the program, I was mostly interested in strokes and looked forward to learning about the research surrounding the rehabilitation of stroke survivors. The presentation given by Dr. Alex Wong, Ph.D., was incredibly interesting and his research important. However, in continuing with the theme of unlikely interests, it was Dr. Gus Davis’, presentation on Parkinson’s disease that had an unexpectedly long-lasting impression on me. The simple fact that the disease behaves similarly to a prion— a rare pathogen consisting of merely a couple of misfolded proteins— and yet is so prevalent, really struck me. Additionally, in his presentation, Dr. Davis mentioned that recent studies suggest that the disease might be transmissible. Such an idea would have previously been considered rather outlandish, so I emailed with questions to which he responded swiftly and warmly also sending articles detailing these new studies. I have learned much more about the novel concept.

The Covid-19 pandemic has certainly turned the country upside down. While disappointed that the Summer Research Program went fully online, there is a silver lining. I am grateful to have found some new interests— in the case of R, I would have likely not picked it up if not for Covid— and excited to return to it next year.