At 9 AM on a summer Monday, I opened two stainless steel doors to a room shrouded in white, except for the spots of blue made by discarded shoe covers that littered the mounted shelves. I grabbed two covers that looked only a little bit worn and pulled them over my sneakers. I scanned my ID and opened the next door. The sound of the lull of filters and rushing water met me. Hundreds of tanks filled with zebrafish stood in front of me. With the room mostly empty, I walked to the first carefully labeled tank and peered into the plastic. Dozens of black, unblinking eyes stared back at me. I leaned back, thinking hard about how these tiny creatures would never understand their importance.
Over the last two summers, I have worked five days a week at the lab of Dr. Yariv Houvras at Weill Cornell Medical College. Since 2011, his lab has utilized zebrafish, an animal very amenable to genetic engineering, to create models of different cancers and other diseases. I have come into contact with zebrafish that model cancers like melanoma and thyroid cancer, as well as rare genetic disorders like Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia. The most striking fact about these fish is that they can be engineered to emulate the case of a single human. Everything can be mirrored, down to even a tiny, specific mutation.
There are many ways to learn biology without thinking about the implications of the actual material. Many students can sit in an AP class in high school and memorize the genetic aspects of a disease or the physiological effects of cancer. But when the next bell rings, they’re already thinking about the next period. But when I stare into the unblinking eyes of a zebrafish, I only see a human. I can only think about how this tiny animal could represent someone in dire need of help.
It is effortless to forget how uniquely and personally a disease affects each individual afflicted. But, when a condition is studied in tandem with the knowledge of the implications it has on a human, then everything feels more real. Studying zebrafish with the understanding of how it affects patients encourages me to think about the psychological, social, or even economic effects that a disease could have on a life. Now, I no longer want to study biomedical science — I want to immerse myself in the world surrounding it.