Reaching the summit: climbing with the burden of pain

My fellow science geeks, sadly, this will be my last World of Work blog post.  However, rather than focusing on the fleeting nature of summers, I wish to walk you through my achievements, insights, and trials and tribulations of working in a biomedical research lab with a severe chronic pain condition.  Since the age of twelve, I have endured an excruciating nerve pain syndrome known as Complex Regional Pain Syndrome (CRPS)[i].  Here, I will briefly mention how CRPS affects me, with the hopes of encouraging students living with disabilities and adversity to pursue their career passions and dreams.

One of the most common questions I am asked regarding my pain is “how?”: “how do you attend college?”  “How do you participate in a research lab?”  “How do you live with the pain?”  My response remains steadfast; human beings (and life in general) possess a remarkable ability for adaptation, even in the bleakest of circumstances.  I believe in challenging the notion that extreme adversity cannot be triumphed in some form.  As you read this blog post, I hope you will view my experiences as evidence for why your hardships should never preclude you from actualizing your dreams.

Shapiro Science Center (SSC) of Brandeis University. The SSC is the annual location of SciFest, an undergraduate poster session [ii].

A few weeks ago, I presented a poster of my summer research findings at Brandeis University’s SciFest VII [iii].  SciFest is an annual poster session showcasing undergraduate student research hosted in my favorite building on campus, the Shapiro Science Center.  In this very building, I learned a cursory understanding of journal style science writing in Dr. Kosinski Collins’s (Dr. K-C) Biology Laboratory course (thank you Dr. K-C!).  I only had a taste of journal diction, yet I relished the opportunity to learn the art behind science writing.  Generating a poster presentation of original research presented my next learning opportunity.  Thankfully, the post-doctoral fellow (“post-doc”) I worked alongside and my principal investigator (PI) were ecstatic to hear about Brandeis SciFest, and strongly encouraged me to create a poster of my summer research.  Thus, I began crafting selected “mini” sections of a journal style paper, beginning with an abstract, followed by a curtailed introduction and figure descriptions of my experimental evidence.  I was fortunate to receive invaluable advice from my co-workers; I passed my writing along to my supervising post-doc, asking her to tear my writing apart.  I wanted her to know “I mean business” when it comes to learning.  I circulated my writing amongst lab members, also gathering my PI’s sage advice.  This gave me a small taste of the manuscript writing process, an essential component of every research laboratory.  This process culminated in a poster, which, upon entering this summer, I knew little about.  My poster explored the role of cysteine restriction in energy homeostasis, focusing on a key metabolic pathway known as the trans-sulfuration pathway.

Pictured above is the intersection of the methionine cycle (from methionine to homocysteine), the folate cycle (far left), and the trans-sulfuration pathway (bolded in red). I focused on the enzyme CGL, or cystathionine-gamma-lyase. This figure was created with assistance of Yang et al. 2016  [iv].
I am immensely proud of my poster and presentation, given that my success represents triumph both over internal and external doubts regarding my capacity for achievement in the face of debilitating pain.  Given that my physical disability effects my left hand and arm, I was concerned regarding my ability to efficiently learn new experimental techniques.  However, with patience, I successfully completed methodologies such as Western Blotting [v], including the pain-inducing sonication step [vi].  Sonication involves “shooting” high energy sound waves into a sample containing proteins and nucleic acids.  The sound waves shear DNA into small chunks, thus liberating nuclear (nucleus-bound) transcription factors (proteins) for proteomic investigation.  I may have taken a few extra minutes to complete this step, but I obtained pure proteins, which I was able to immunoblot for [Western Blotting] analysis.  Another technique I am proud of learning is mouse dissection.  Although simpler than the microscopic Drosophila (fruit fly) dissections I have attempted at Brandeis, mouse dissection still requires significant dexterity and focus.  I was concerned I would lose control over my left hand, or that the pain would inhibit my precision.  However, I excelled, even learning how to excise “speck-like” structures such as the pituitary glands in the brain and the thyroid gland in the neck.  I also improved upon techniques such as RNA tissue extraction, reverse transcriptase quantitative polymerase chain reaction (RT-qPCR) [vii], study design, statistical analyses, and more.

Altogether, I am quite proud of my tireless work this summer, both experimentally and regarding my pain condition.  I see my work as another step towards achieving my career goals in medicine.  There is an expanding pile of evidence that my pain will not write my story; I will.  I wish to convey this simple fact to other students living with disabilities and adversity; you can achieve your greatest dreams and more.  Although I have yet to accomplish my goal of becoming a physician scientist, I know I will get there.  You will reach your goal too.


-Josh Lepson



[i] American RSDHope. 2017. CRPS OVERVIEW/DESCRIPTION. Accessed on August 17.

[ii]  Brandeis University. Integrated Media – CAMPUS BUILDINGS. Accessed on August 17.

[iii] SciFest. 2017. SciFest VII Abstracts. Accessed on August 17.

[iv] Yang, M., Vousden, K.H. 2016. Serine and one-carbon metabolism in cancer. Nat. Rev. Cancer. 16(10): 650-662.

[v] ThermoFisher Scientific. Overview of Western Blotting. Accessed on August 17.

[vi] New England Biolabs. DNA Fragmentation – Application Overview. Accessed on August 16.

[vii] ThermoFisher Scientific. Basic Principles of RT-qPCR: Introduction to RT-qPCR. Accessed on August 17.