Max Williams ’12 Does Hands-on Lab Work in Internship

Max Williams '12
Max Williams '12
Staring at the computer screen in front of him, Max Williams ’12 rotates a complex MRI image. He opens up the cross sections, targeting the colored area and moving “slices” of the image to better see the specific piece he wants. What is all this technology used to analyze? A chicken embryo’s face, of course! Williams is spending the summer at the Birth Defects Research Lab at the University of Washington Medical Center in Seattle working to set new parameters for the embryonic development of chickens.

Although they may seem genetically distant from humans, chickens are the standard test subjects for embryology research. In the 1950s scientists set up criteria called the Hamburger-Hamilton stages to define the different phases of chicken embryology and, despite significant technological advances since then, no improvements have yet been made. The ’50s parameters did not even include the changes in the chicken’s face, an important component of embryonic development. Using both dry labs (computer analysis) and wet labs (involving chemicals), Williams and the other researchers at the Small Animal Tomographic Analysis facility are distinguishing between the different stages and making a new, more thorough set of criteria to define them.

To start his analysis process, Williams identifies chicken embryos at different stages by the HH criteria. Once he has determined this, he encases the embryo in agarose gel to preserve them and then puts them into a machine called a Bioptonics OPT scanner. This machine shoots UV rays at the embryo, imaging it with the same technology of MRI scans. These rays move differently through materials of different densities, so the result is a three-dimensional image of the embryo with each different-density part distinguished.

Once the image is compiled, Williams moves to the dry lab component: analyzing and processing the image. Typically, institutions pay thousands of dollars per year to subscribe to the most recent program that creates the composite MRI image, but Williams is learning to use a new program called Slicer 3D, the brainchild of Harvard Medical School. This software is free, and Williams is determining whether it can complete all the functions of the thousand-dollar software, potentially saving the University of Washington millions of dollars. It was originally created to help neurosurgeons plan their surgeries; the software allows you, for example, to find a tumor, select it, create a 3D image to see it from all sides. For the purposes of Williams’ embryology work, it enables him to do segmentation, to pick out individual areas or even bones in the embryo’s face to compare the changes in different-stage embryos.

Besides his hands-on lab work, Williams has the opportunity to shadow doctors at the Seattle Children’s Hospital, where many of the university’s professors work. A leader in treating birth defects and deformities, this component of his internship gives Williams first-hand experience with human genetic abnormalities, the aspect of the medical profession that most interests him.

A pre-med chemistry major, Williams is also learning the benefits and detriments of working in a large lab. Although the University of Washington lab system is enormous, Williams works directly with the same 10 people every day, giving it a small-lab feeling. All of the research scientists he works with are also professors at the University of Washington, giving Williams a different perspective about the relationship between academic institutions and the research they pursue. Williams sees this internship as opening up his career opportunities in the future: “I’ve been able to get a huge leg up in terms of the wet lab work and learning about the developments of living organisms,” Williams said.

Williams is a recipient of the Joseph F. Anderson Internship Fund, which provides stipends to students who wish to accompany their academic studies with a real-world, career-based experience. It must be an unpaid position, and the Fund is open to students in all majors.

Williams is a graduate of James A. Garfield High School in Seattle.
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