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Yijuan Du, PhD

Postdoctoral Fellow at Feinberg School of Medicine

I love looking at waveforms of the electrical activity when I patch clamp a healthy neuron. It's amazing that such a small cell can do so many different things. We can learn so much information from the shape of a single waveform, the pattern of a train of waveforms, and their variation. ”

Yijuan Du investigates pathophysiology and treatment for Parkinson's disease as a postdoctoral fellow at Northwestern's Feinberg School of Medicine. She currently works in Dr. Jim Surmeier's lab and is a participant of the INVO practicum. 

What were you doing before you arrived at Northwestern? 
After graduating with a Bachelor of Science degree from Peking University, I was fascinated by the human brain, and went to work in a lab studying mechanisms of inflammatory pain. This was the first time in my life I handled a rat, as my past research was all on cell lines! I had always wanted to come to US for graduate training and was thrilled to receive an offer from University of Pittsburgh's Center for Neuroscience in 2009. I fell in love with my first lab rotation, and I still feel lucky that I was able to work my PhD advisor, Dr. Tony Grace, for six years. He is a great mentor on scientific training, and he gave me so much freedom to explore and choose topics that interested me, all while providing guidance on experiment design and execution. He helped me develop my writing and presentation skills and was essential in my career development. My PhD thesis was on preventing schizophrenia by alleviating anxiety before the onset of psychosis. We tested this idea in a rat model of schizophrenia, using techniques of electrophysiology, animal behaviors, and immunohistochemistry. After I graduated in 2015, I came to Chicago. 

Why did you choose Northwestern for your postdoctoral training?
The primary reason that I came to Northwestern for my postdoctoral training was my postdoctoral advisor, Dr. Jim Surmeier. I was interested in his research on Parkinson's disease, and his techniques are complimentary to what I learned during my PhD training. Also, I love Chicago! It is the first US city I visited as a tourist when I attended a Society for Neuroscience meeting in 2009. My friend, a Northwestern graduate student, gave me a tour of his lab on the Chicago campus. I was impressed, and I've been interested in this University since that day.

Tell us about your research in non-specialist terms.
My research focuses on Parkinson's disease, a movement disorder that is characterized by tremor, slowness of movement, and rigidity. In Parkinson's disease, a loss of dopamine neurons in the substantia nigra leads to decreased dopamine level in other brain regions. I study the striatum, which is one of the most important brain regions underlying the motor dysfunction of Parkinson's disease. Using slice physiology and anatomy techniques, I am investigating how neurons of the striatum connect with each other and with other brain regions, and how these connections alter in a rodent model of the disease. 

What is a rewarding aspect of your research?
I love looking at waveforms of the electrical activity when I patch clamp a healthy neuron. It's amazing that such a small cell can do so many different things. We can learn so much information from the shape of a single waveform, the pattern of a train of waveforms, and their variation. 

What is a challenging aspect of your research?
Managing my experiment schedule can be difficult. We generate a rodent model of Parkinson's disease by injecting a drug into their brains. We wait three to four weeks to verify the motor phenotype before we start electrophysiology recordings and other measurements. For one project, I induce another behavioral phenotype in these Parkinsonian mice and observe their behaviors for three hours every other day for at least five days. On top of this, we inject viruses into the brain to express genes that allow for precise manipulation of neuronal activity by light, which means that we need to take into account the time of viral infection and gene expression. The breeding of many lines of genetically modified mice adds another uncertainty, as I try to perform these manipulations on mice at a similar age. So, balancing lab time and personal time is a bit tricky. But, I enjoy this aspect of my research, and so I see it as a great exercise in time management.

Describe a typical research day. 
My typical research day usually involves electrophysiology. I arrive at work between 7 and 8 AM-I like starting my day early. Performing perfusion and cutting the brain takes around the hour, and from there the brain slices are incubated for an additional hour. I prepare the solutions and drugs so that I am able to begin collecting data once the incubation is complete. The electrophysiology recordings takes 4 to 6 hours.

My days don't generally last very long unless I try to fit in several additional hours of surgeries or behaviors in a recording day. An outside observer may think my day looks quite easy, but it requires a lot of practice to feel comfortable, especially since there are so many variables. When things go wrong, it requires a lot of troubleshooting, which sometimes drives me crazy!

What's one thing you're passionate about beyond your research?
Anything related to science and technology! I love my research and enjoy deepening my knowledge to become an expert in specific topics, but I miss learning new or "irrelevant" information. This January, I began participating in the practicum offered by Innovation and New Ventures Office (INVO) of Northwestern University. Researchers in our university bring their inventions to INVO, and INVO works with them to gain intellectual property protection and commercialization or launch a startup. 

One day a week, the practicum interns work with invention managers to evaluate the patentability and marketability of inventions. This gives me the opportunity to work on inventions from fields outside of my research. I've learned so many things, not only on intellectual property, business, and regulatory affairs, but also about science and engineering. One month into the internship and I've already learned more about materials, prostate cancer, fibromyalgia, and the physics of radiation detection than I would have imagined possible. If you want to put your broad interest in science into some good use, or you are interested in a career in technology transfer, patent law, regulatory affairs, management consulting, or venture capital, I strongly recommend the INVO Practicum. Not only has the Practicum reignited my passion for science in general, but it has also increased my love for my own research.