Internship offers meeting of the minds
By Emma Hopkins
Photo provided by Emma Hopkins
Peter Mercado-Reyes, a senior biochemistry major from Indianapolis, experienced a dream last summer: he worked in the lab of Eric Kandel, a neuroscientist at Columbia University in New York. Understanding the human brain, says Mercado-Reyes, is one of the greatest superpowers of all. Full-size image (2.83 MB)
Find out more
Neuroscientist Eric Kandel never sold T-shirts with his face on them. But if he had, Peter Mercado-Reyes, a senior biochemistry major from Indianapolis, would have bought one and worn it with as much enthusiasm as a kid wearing a Superman or Batman shirt.
Last summer, Mercado-Reyes not only met his superhero, he worked in Kandel’s lab at Columbia University in New York.
“It was... just imagine working with a superhero. It was surreal—just surreal,” Mercado-Reyes said. “Kandel is a pillar in neuroscience. He’s one of the big guns, if not the big gun.”
Mercado-Reyes said his internship experience with Kandel was amazing to the point that it felt like the entire situation was a dream.
While other high school students looked up to professional athletes or comic book characters, Mercado-Reyes looked up to Kandel and other scientists who study the brain. To Mercado-Reyes, understanding the complexities of the human mind is the greatest superpower of all—one that Kandel possesses.
Kandel’s biography may as well be a movie script: he escaped the Holocaust to live in New York, became a professor of neuroscience, won the Nobel Prize in 2000 for recognizing the biological mechanisms in memory, and, at 84 years old, swims every day and plays tennis.
Mercado-Reyes said Kandel is the most charismatic man he’s ever met and has taught him important concepts in science. Just as important, Mercado-Reyes said the Nobel Prize winner guided him to reflect on himself and his personal purpose as a scientist. With Kandel’s incessant joking and the intensity with which he spoke, Mercado-Reyes was attentive to anything the neuroscientist asked of him.
“Kandel asked me and the two other interns to write a story about ourselves and why we were there,” Mercado-Reyes said. “For me it was cathartic. Reflecting on my own past and why I’m interested in biochemistry and physiology made me realize that what I want to do with my life is understand how stress and mental states regulate our bodies.”
During his three-month internship, Mercado-Reyes woke up at 6 every morning filled with pure excitement for what was going to happen that day. In Kandel’s lab, he conducted mice-related experiments side-by-side with technicians, post-doctoral scientists, and the other interns in an effort to better understand post-traumatic stress disorder and how it might be cured.
How do you find a mouse with PTSD?
Kandel and his lab discovered that there’s a gene that, when absent causes a mouse to have longer-lasting symptoms of anxiety after a traumatic event. Mercado-Reyes examined the gene-deficient mice and their reactions for clues about how to treat this long-lasting trauma in humans. Mercado-Reyes’s passion for the work was apparent to his lab supervisor, who allowed him to develop and carry out some of his own experiments—something most interns don’t get to experience.
“The first time I saw s work was in a PBS documentary,” Mercado-Reyes said. “And then I literally worked in an office adjacent to his, and I could hear him talk—this voice I’d only heard through earphones on YouTube videos and documentaries, and I was working on his project. It was incredible.”
Mercado-Reyes got hooked on the science of the human mind after his grandfather was diagnosed Parkinson’s, a neurological disease that causes loss of muscle control. Those with the disease often suffer tremors or have difficulty moving.
In high school and college, while he was studying biochemistry and molecular biology, Mercado-Reyes pieced together that his grandfather’s disease may have been set off by the high-stress environment he was living in. Mercado-Reyes came to a similar conclusion about his mother—a single parent and out of work at one time, she began to develop symptoms of an autoimmune disease called lupus.
“Those with chronic stress have a higher probability of developing a chronic disease,” Mercado-Reyes said. “Looking at that connection for my mom, and looking at my grandfather’s life, at the period where he started showing symptoms for Parkinson’s, I realized that was a high-stress situation for him.”
Mercado-Reyes credits Purdue for giving him the experiences that have made him who he is today. The final clincher that brought Mercado-Reyes to Purdue was the research opportunities available to students in their freshman year—something that Mercado-Reyes took advantage of.
“Purdue is unmatched in research education,” Mercado-Reyes said. “Purdue will tell you, ‘We have the resources, we believe in you, and we will let you do it.’ That attitude has gotten me to where I am now, and has allowed me to realize that achieving a dream is possible.”