Michael Amrami

Michael is the first place winner of the Virtual Symposium 2021

Can you please provide a brief summary of your research?

Worldwide, chronic pain affects over 1.5 billion people. Pain is an existing problem that is difficult to treat because we don’t quite yet understand what causes it. However, there has been evidence that has emphasized the role of the hippocampus as central to the experience of pain itself and to chronic pain’s associated comorbidities such as memory impairment, psychiatric mood alterations, and cognitive deficiencies. At Dr. Tajerian’s laboratory, we are striving to understand chronic pain and pain-related conditions by delving into the realms of neurobiology and neurophysiology. I serve as the lab’s surgical technician, where I am responsible for conducting nerve injuries, hypoperfusion fixations, hippocampal isolations, and neurosurgeries on mice to harvest brain tissue for further immunohistochemical analyses and to model chronic pain conditions.

While most research regards neuroinflammation simply in terms of the number of activated glia, our laboratory strives to understand chronic pain by analyzing hippocampal glial cell morphology and arborization, giving insight into the complexity of glial processes beyond the mere quantification of cells. We hypothesize that peripheral injury results in neuroinflammation and morphological changes in astrocytes and glia in the chronic pain hippocampus. In addition to my physical work, I also analyze microglia using Sholl analysis in ImageJ, an analytical software for neurons, which has helped reveal a reduction in glial processes and an increase in glial cell length post-injury, which are indicative of increases in glial complexity. By looking at glia more closely, we may develop a better understanding of neuroinflammatory processes. In the future, we aspire to link these morphological changes to functional changes in glia, with the prospect of finding novel therapeutic treatments for the chronic pain patient. 

When did you first become interested, and what inspired you to become interested, in your field?

Throughout my life, there was one thing that both held me back growing up and influenced my career goals: my asthma. Dealing with seasonal allergies and asthma meant that I often missed school, and so exchanging school time with friends for emergency room visits was never new to me. As a result, I’ve always been more of an introvert throughout elementary school to middle school and felt embarrassed having to carry around my little red inhaler around school. Quickly, I noticed how my illness began to affect my own psychological disposition and mental psyche, and I became curious about its mechanism. With these medical challenges, I was inspired to become a physician and researcher to not only treat debilitating conditions, but help find the initial cause and possible interventions through research.

Given my medical and personal life challenges, I believed that a dedication to science would eventually help me understand myself and why I suffered as a youngster. In researching the different fields of scientific curricula, I pinpointed my passion for science in the fields of neurobiology and psychology. As a result, I have assumed multiple positions that aid me in the development of my scientific knowledge in the field.

Blending my major in neuroscience-biology and psychology with real-life experiences, where I apply the knowledge of social psychology with patient care in the healthcare world and knowledge of neuroscience in the laboratory, I’ve assumed an understanding regarding how I may be the best physician and researcher possible. I’ve learned the significance of diligence and hard work, having taken intensive science courses while working two jobs, conducting research in neurobiology and performing heart-surgery and hypoperfusions on mice, and providing community service during the unprecedented times of Covid-19. Through these experiences, I know that I am on route to achieving my goal of revolutionizing the field of neurosurgery, neuroscience research, and patient care in the world we live in today.

What was your first research experience?

My first research experience was actually not at Queens college. Rather, one of the most influential psychology research experiences I had was during the Summer of 2019, when I worked directly alongside CEO and Founder of Soaringwords, Dr. Lisa Honig Buksbaum. Combining my knowledge from interactions volunteering with underprivileged children at PS120, where I designed learning modules as a leader for Project START!, I became the project lead for Soaringwords, a not-for-profit designed to help ill-children, families, and adults to take active roles in the self-healing process. As part of the team, I served as the project lead to manage the empirical study of inner-city, low-income, Black and Latino hospitalized children in the south Bronx, where I analyzed the effect of positive psychology techniques on the self-healing process. As a field researcher at Lincoln Medical Center, I worked alongside the diverse professional staff in interviewing over 200 ill-children in the in-patient wards and out-patient specialty clinics.

By the conclusion of the internship, I wrote an executive summary for Dr. Buksbaum’s research and prepared presentation slides, which were presented at the Intentional Positive Psychology Association World Congress in Melbourne, Australia. I was also part of the project team that built Soaringwords’ universal mental health workshop that focuses on sharing our culture-dependent, self-healing techniques by featuring leading experts in positive psychology such as Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar and Dr. Richard Tedeschi, the founder of the science of posttraumatic growth. Simply going into the hospital each morning and putting smiles on the children’s faces truly made me realize the significance of volunteer work and contributing to the global good, an understanding I plan to uphold in my future practice of healthcare.

What is the most important lesson you have learned in your studies and research?

I have always been the type of student who never could settle for an unanswered question. If there was something I didn’t know, whether it be in a classroom or research setting, I would never overstep my boundaries and would let my instructor know that I didn’t have the answer. However, I am also the type of student who will work tirelessly to find that answer. To me, this trait is what has driven me to excel not only on an academic level, but also in the sphere of biomedical research.

The most important lesson I have learned from participating in laboratory research is to be, as I like to say, “confidently skeptical.” The research world, to me, is an academic playground. This is one field where the possibilities are truly endless, and I think that’s what makes it so enticing. As a result, it has taught me to ask questions, be skeptical, and stretch above and beyond the typical classroom mentality. No matter how wild or out of the box one’s idea may be, as long as it agrees with the basic laws and principles of the sciences, it is fair game in the world of research. Thus, being confident and skeptical, in my eyes, is the ultimate recipe for success in research.

Is there a mentor or professor who has particularly inspired and helped you?

Dr. Tajerian has been one of my greatest influences during my experience as an undergraduate at Queens college. On my first day interviewing with Dr. Tajerian, she remarked on her time as a student at Stanford University, explaining how she was never the one to get perfect grades or have a flawless GPA. She constantly questioned textbooks and never settled for answers that were explicitly given, without scientific basis. By taking matters into her own hands, she became a lead researcher in the national chronic pain community, a feat that has inspired me since the day I walked into her office. One of her motivational outlooks that propelled her into scientific research was the mere possibility of knowing something about the universe that nobody else does. This, indeed, is the greatest reward to academic curiosity.

Using my own intellectual fervor, I’ve taken the lessons taught by Dr. Tajerian and have been working towards the goal of bettering humanity through research. Hence, I serve as an undergraduate researcher and resident surgeon in her lab, conducting animal surgeries necessary for research studies throughout the laboratory. The ultimate plan for our work is to see how the brain changes in response to chronic pain conditions so that we may find treatment methods to chronic pain, which affects billions of individuals worldwide!

What are your future plans?

All in all, my undergraduate experiences have clearly revealed to me the specific populations who are impacted by mental illness and has clued me into the realms of behavioral psychology. With my work in the wet-lab at Queens college, I found the evidence that proves psychological disabilities intricate connections with behavior following illness and pain conditions. As the next step, I sought to find psychological techniques that may aid those suffering from mental illness in the healthcare system, which seemed effective. Especially in the US, with a mainly privatized healthcare system that demands a fast-paced work environment and thus limits doctor-patient interactions, patients lose half the equation of treatment: truly caring for the individual as not simply a product of ailment, thus adding to the psychological consequence of illness. As I develop my psychological and neuroscientific research skills to understand those afflicted by mental comorbidities of illness to greater extents, I will apply healthcare leadership techniques that I’ve learned throughout my undergraduate years towards serving patients’ needs beyond the sole treatment of physical illness. Ultimately, I will employ the crucial elements of care that focuses on providing a psychological connection with patients as a future physician to embed more sincere doctor-patient relationships into the foundation of US healthcare interactions during my time in medical school.

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