Tatenda Chakoma ’18 is exploring a possible future in neuroscience as he interns at UCLA Medical School, Department of Neurology this summer. This internship is a summer program run by Hamilton alumnus Dr. Bruce Dobkin ’69. Each year he selects one Hamilton neuroscience student to do biomedical training and research at UCLA Neurology. Chakoma’s internship is supported by the Sandra Solomon Internship Fund, managed by the Career Center.
Chakoma is a student research assistant in the lab of Dr. Leif Havton, a pioneer in spinal cord injury and neural repair research. Havton specializes in neural repair of the coda equina and cona medullaris which are the distal parts of the spinal cord that control lower extremities, bladder and bowel functions.
“In my project, I use electromyography to study muscle activity of the anal sphincter in non-human primates with incomplete spinal cord injuries,” Chakoma explained. “I’m investigating how spinal shock that occurs after injury affects recovery time and whether this muscle exhibits hyper-reflexia in the later stages of recovery.”
After taking the Brain and Behavior neuroscience class with Professor Douglas Weldon in fall 2015, Chakoma said he became fascinated by the complexity of the nervous system and wanted to learn more about it. “This internship at UCLA posed a chance to be at a renowned neuroscience research institution with state of the art research equipment and some of the leading scientists in the field,” he remarked.
Chakoma said he’s anxious to learn how spinal cord injuries affect control of the bowel and bladder and how physicians can help patients recover. He was affected by a survey that found spinal cord injury patients would rather regain control of the bladder and bowel than walk again. “It’s such a serious functional deficit with more than just medical consequences,” he remarked. “It has a great toll on the patients’ social lives.”
The rising junior said he also wants to explore the relationship between research and medicine and how he might combine the two. “Having a supervisor who is an MD/Ph.D. has certainly helped in that regard; understanding both the clinical and research side of science is the way forward in medicine right now,” Chakoma acknowledged.
The UCLA internship has provided Chakoma with a deeper understanding of nervous system function and has improved his research skills. But the experience has opened his eyes to much more. “Meeting spinal cord injured patients has made me realize that neuro-rehabilitation requires celebrating tiny improvements rather than the ultimate big change because it might never happen depending on the severity of the injury,” he said.
Chakoma finds it especially rewarding to conduct lab research on spinal cord injuries, and then go on hospital rounds to see patients with the same injuries. He confirmed that “Seeing that connection brings life into the research and reminds me that it is not abstract work.”
For the immediate future, Chakoma is on a pre-med track and also considering graduate school in neuroscience. “My long term career goal is to advance neuroscience research in my home country, Zimbabwe, by building a neuroscience research laboratory,” he stated. “Neuroscience is a field that has fallen behind even though nervous system related conditions continue to be a major health concern. I see this summer internship as an opportunity to start building a network that will prove instrumental years later when I start my project. “