True detective: Nathalie Spita

Student learns how research can move from the lab to the patient bedside

Share this story

When Nathalie Spita decided to take her learning beyond the classroom and into the laboratory, she didn’t fully grasp how basic scientific findings could one day translate to help and hope for patients with traumatic brain injury (TBI).

Spita, a senior biology major in the College of Humanities and Sciences at Virginia Commonwealth University, spent her summer as part of a research team in the laboratory of Andrew K. Ottens, Ph.D., assistant professor of anatomy and neurobiologyin the VCU School of Medicine. The focus there is to develop improved diagnostics and prognostics for TBI patient care.

Under Ottens’ guidance, Spita got a taste of the discovery process and began to understand the trials and tribulations of biomedical research.

“Being able to be a major part of a hands-on project allowed me to learn firsthand the amount of time, dedication, hard work and knowledge it takes to complete only a small part of a bigger project,” Spita said.

Spita has always had an interest in neuroscience. She was hooked on the TBI project from the beginning. She said what compelled her most was its direct clinical relevance.

“It was very important to gain exposure to research as an undergraduate at this stage of my education to actually understand this side of science and medicine,” Spita said. “It allowed me to finally use knowledge I have gained in my undergraduate classes and apply it to a real life experience, which has really been the best possible opportunity of my undergraduate career.”

Spita has plans to apply to medical school at the end of the year. She hopes to one day incorporate research into her career.

Spita was matched with Ottens through the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program at VCU.

In Ottens’ lab, Spita evaluated how the TBI molecular signature evolves during the course of acute inpatient brain injury rehabilitation. The researchers have newly identified several neuroplastic molecular factors present within the urine of TBI patients. Their focus was to determine how this signature changed following two weeks of inpatient rehabilitation and to evaluate correlation with functional measures at discharge.

“UROP provided me with the means to be completely submerged into research,” Spita said. “Seeing and learning what it means to be a part of cutting-edge biomedical research has truly been an eye-opening experience that has changed my academic experience entirely.”

Spita’s work in Ottens’ lab included biofluid processing, advanced data processing, statistical analysis and running a state-of-the-art mass spectrometer.

To date, the team has successfully processed and analyzed admission and discharge specimens and has found new evidence that the TBI urine metabolic signature is distinctly different between these two time points and apart from non-traumatized controls. They assessed molecular differences between these time points, and additional work is ongoing to elucidate the pathobiological relevance of the changing signature.

“Nathalie came to grasp what conducting research ultimately looks and feels like,” Ottens said. “Research was very different from what she (and other undergraduate students) experienced in course lab work – we are testing an entirely novel concept with an educated idea as to what we expect to observe.

“However, she came to understand that, perhaps more often than not, our expectations differ from reality. We must allow for alternative hypotheses and unintended outcomes. Only firsthand research experimentation can provide this learning experience, which goes unappreciated with classroom or educational lab teaching only.”

Ottens said that programs such as UROP that offer a hands-on, real-world research approach are impactful and make for a highly effective learning experience.

“I would argue that we should engage all science majors in research, perhaps even earlier than the end of their undergraduate experience,” Ottens said. “This provides students with perspective on how it will be to ask focused hypotheses and test them without knowing what will happen, further preparing them for a career in science. Didactic coursework cannot offer our students that opportunity.”

But in order for students to have those early firsthand learning experiences, mentors such as Ottens are needed to help students explore the scientific realm.

Spita is grateful for the opportunity to learn from a notable and dedicated researcher such as Ottens.

“Dr. Ottens has years of experience developing molecular-based biomarkers of TBI. His knowledge and passion for his research make him an ideal scientist to learn from,” Spita said.

“Spending the summer focused on this project in Dr. Ottens’ laboratory really taught me more than I ever could have learned in a classroom.”

Subscribe for free to the weekly VCU News email newsletter at and receive a selection of stories, videos, photos, news clips and event listings in your inbox every Thursday. VCU students, faculty and staff automatically receive the newsletter. To learn more about research taking place at VCU, subscribe to its research blog, Across the Spectrum at