High School/College: Wayne Valley High School (Wayne, NJ) and Case Western Reserve University (Cleveland, OH).
Description of project worked on: In my time in the Narla lab, I have had the opportunity to work with graduate students Caroline Farrington and Abbey Perl. I worked alongside them examining breast and lung cancer cell models and examining ways the regulatory subunits of PP2A are responsible for mediating the effects of PP2A activators. In addition, I have helped them initiate work investigating Protein Phosphatase Methyl Esterase – 1 (PME1) and the critical role it may also play in regulating PP2A.
Mentor and years in program: Caroline Farrington and Abbey Perl. I have participated in the program during the summer of 2016 in Dr. Narla’s lab.
Skills obtained: Cell culture techniques (splitting cells, plating experiments, counting cells, harvesting cells), running western blots, transferring gels to membranes, developing membranes and analyzing for protein expression, isolating proteins through protein quants.
Future professional aspirations: Medical school to study pediatrics, neonatology, and cardiology.
How did you realize you were interested in research and science?
Born almost six weeks premature and weighing less than three pounds, I was monitored in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) for almost a month. The doctors and nurses in NICU worked tirelessly, performing countless tests and procedures to ensure I could be a healthy baby. The care I received in the NICU has ignited in me a lifelong fascination with medicine. Since I was a little girl, I have always dreamed of becoming a pediatrician or neonatologist to join the community of doctors that saved me as a baby to one day to be able to do the same for someone else. Ever since I was young, I was fascinated with medicine and constantly found myself asking my pediatrician questions about reasons he did certain tests or ways vaccines worked.
In school, I loved science classes and found them extremely interesting. Through summer enrichment programs and advanced placement classes in high school I continued to enjoy the field and explore new concepts in science. I began pursing a BA in chemistry at Case Western Reserve University two years ago and am working towards medical school now. My passion for medicine has only continued to expand with new experiences through volunteering nationally and internationally, courses in school and abroad, shadowing doctors, and clinical and bench research that I have done.
What do you think is the biggest misconception among high school students about working in a lab?
I believe there are quite a few stereotypes that come with lab work. People may think that lab work is boring and that you have to be a genius to be successful in research. I have found that working in a lab is based almost entirely on your attitude. If you find a project that you are genuinely interested in and put the time in to understand the literature and actual reasoning behind the different experiments you do, it is truly exciting. If you put in the time and have the right attitude, you can be successful working in a lab. It is easy to see working in a lab as a “nerdy” extracurricular. While it may be, the lab can a serve as a powerful place where you can apply the material you learn in science courses to the real world of medicine.
Why did you not want to wait until later to gain the research experience?
As an undergraduate planning on going to medical school, I knew gaining research experience is important. However, I have been involved in summer programs since 8th grade learning about different fields of science and research, seeking lab experience and a better understanding of the fields before I entered college. It allowed me to pinpoint my interests, and learn about the practical applications of science we learn in textbooks.
The summer after my first year of college, I worked in the Emergency Department doing clinical research and also spent time working in the lab at the Louis Stokes Cleveland VA Medical Center analyzing CT scans. But after finding Dr. Narla’s lab, I have discovered a newfound appreciation for research. As a rising junior at Case Western Reserve University, working in the lab is vital as it builds upon the skills I learn in lab classes and courses; it also helps me conceptualize ideas, models and techniques, such as protein expression in a relevant manner.
What attracted you to The Young Scientist Foundation?
I enjoy being involved with The Young Scientist Foundation because of the dedication mentors have to encourage and enable students to work in the lab alongside graduate students and to be as hands on as possible. I am the type of student that aims to get everything I can out of every experience when the opportunity is presented. The Young Scientist Foundation has given me the ability to learn and practice different techniques necessary for any research in biology.
What was the typical day at the lab like for you?
This summer, my typical lab day would start around 9:30 a.m. and end around 5:00 p.m. While my specific tasks varied based on the day, I have worked on a variety of projects. Some days I would work in cell culture, splitting and re-plating cells, and prepping them for experiments. Then, the next step of harvesting cells at different time points once they were treated with drug always kept me on my toes. After collecting these samples, we would complete protein quants to isolate the proteins from our samples and prep them for western blots. I spent many lab days quanting and prepping proteins appropriately. Some days, I would load western blots with these prepped proteins and transfer them to membranes where we could probe for the expression of different proteins using primary and secondary antibodies. It was really cool to be able to work with this entire process. While all of this did not happen in a day, I have had the opportunity to directly work with every step of this general sequence. Over a few days this summer I got the chance to learn to do new types of protocols such as preparing cDNA, isolating RNA, and working with seahorse assays.
Can you describe the mentoring process?
Caroline and Abbey have been extremely helpful mentors and have taught me to understand the details of what I am doing, reasons to use certain reagents, and reasons behind every experiment or protocol. In my training experience, it has been really important to be comfortable to ask questions constantly to truly understand procedures before doing them. My mentors have been great with guiding me every step of the way, helping when needed, allowing me to try, encouraging me even when I failed, and trusting me to eventually do things on my own. Whenever I had questions my mentors have never hesitated to answer them no matter how trivial and they pushed me to figure out or draw upon my own knowledge to answer my questions. Caroline and Abbey really understand me as a person, which is amazing because they know when to challenge me and how to teach me.
How have your mentors influenced your career path?
Caroline and Abbey have really helped me enjoy being in the lab. They have taken away the stress of a lab class and have shown me what it is like to work in the lab where everyone comes together excited about the research they are doing. My experiences in the lab so far has motivated me to continue working in the lab until I graduate from Case Western Reserve University and pursue research during medical school. Though I do not think I want to pursue a PhD at this point, I would like to continue doing research alongside my schooling for the next few years. Working with PP2A and different cancer cell lines has definitely increased my interest in cancer and may influence me to pursue oncology in the future.
What is the key to establishing a productive relationship with your mentor?
I think building a productive relationships with my mentors lies in recognizing that it is a two-way street: they have to be excited to teach me and I, as a student, have to be ready to learn. I have found that having a positive attitude, being genuinely excited about the work I am doing, and constantly trying to improve my skills have gotten me where I am. Additionally, being willing to do anything my mentors ask and staying engaged when they are teaching are very important because the more interest I show, the more I am allowed to try new things. My initiative and genuine interest have resulted in gaining their trust to handle experiments independently.
Can you describe your most memorable experience with the program?
My most memorable experience was probably the first time I went into the hood. If you ask anyone in the lab what my favorite thing to do it, it is hands down cell culture. For some reason I can never get enough of it. There is a certain thrill I get out of working in a hood even if I am just splitting cells or if I am setting up an experiment and doing something a bit more challenging. I love being so hands on with the cell lines we analyze. I cannot really pinpoint the exact time I was first allowed to work in the hood by myself, but having the trust and confidence to work with these cell lines is really a rewarding feeling and is an excitement that never wavers when I am in the lab.
How did the program challenge you?
At the beginning of my time in Dr. Narla’s lab, I was busy with the spring semester of my sophomore year, and all of my extracurricular activities. It was tough to be in the lab only a few hours a week and still keep track of the protocols and experiments. It was challenging to improve quickly and remember the details of each protocol, but the key was to not get discouraged. I found that working in the lab for a few weeks straight this summer almost full-time has allowed me to get closer to mastering and assimilating all the protocols and research. I think it is still challenging to relate experiments to the science behind them and the reasons we perform them as it is easy to get lost in the protocols and do them blindly without understanding why. Yet, being aware of what is going on and constantly asking questions and clarifying things that confuse me has helped keep me on track with what I am doing.
How has training in the program changed your perception of working in a scientific field?
I have found that working in a scientific field is tough, and things do not always go the way you want. It takes a lot of dedication to get a paper published, get a degree in the field, or be recognized for your work. There is quite a lot of competition in the field and while Dr. Narla’s lab has an incredible atmosphere, there are always challenges, new techniques to learn, and so much more to the story beyond the research we are working on. Training in the program has shown me that attention to detail, ability to see the big picture and assimilate every small piece of information are essential to being successful.
What made this experience meaningful to you?
I think the people in Dr. Narla’s lab have made my experience what it is. Everyone in the lab including graduate, undergraduate and high school students have all been a joy to work with. Everyone is extremely encouraging and is always willing to help out or answer a question. It is always fun to exchange some friendly banter when working at the bench. At the same time the knowledge that people share in the lab about research is incredible and it is amazing to learn from such intelligent people.
What is the key to making the best use of this training program for somebody who is just starting out?
The best way to approach The Young Scientist Foundation training, is to keep an open mind and not be afraid to mess up. I cannot tell you the number of times I have forgotten a step or accidentally messed up a procedure—but that is the best way to learn. Every step of the way, staying positive, laughing at your mistakes, and improving every time you do something is most important.
Another very useful thing to keep in mind is that you should try to understand why you do certain steps in a procedure in order not to follow protocols blindly. It is important to know why we are looking for the expression of cleaved PARP, for instance, when developing a membrane, and to know what it means when cells are treated with drug and how the different time points or the knockdown or specific genes could potentially effect your results. Then, when you are analyzing data or even collecting it, you know what to expect and can understand why things are the way they are. On a larger scale, understanding what you are doing, in the simplest way, makes the experience of working in the lab so much more worthwhile.
What inspires you?
I am inspired first and foremost by my family. My parents immigrated to the United States in their 20s to pursue their PhDs and start a life here so that my sister and I could have the lives we do. Their hard work and resilience throughout all the struggles constantly push me to challenge myself. My older sister is one of my biggest role models, as she is extremely passionate about the things she does. I look up to her for all of her success in her career, ability to talk with anybody about anything, and dedication to constantly improve and challenge herself.
As a student at Case Western Reserve University, I am inspired by my peers who have a “work hard, play hard” mentality. There are many hard-working students here who are not ashamed to spend a Friday night in the library or take up two leadership positions in their organizations. At the same time they can put that same level of energy into enjoying the college experience. Having that balance in life is something that inspires me to do the same.
Most importantly, passion is the biggest thing that drives me. My passion for medicine is what pushes me in the lab and in my classes, and guides me to find opportunities to experience the medical field first-hand. My passion for philanthropy and helping others is what drives me to be an active member of my sorority and to be involved in fundraisers through my dance team. Dance, another passion of mine, is what motivates me to keep a healthy mind and body and to relieve my stress in a positive manner. I am the type of person who does not do anything without the passion or drive for it, and having that passion is what keeps me going.
What are you thankful for?
I am thankful for all of the opportunities I have been given in my life. Growing up in America is a gift, and I have been lucky enough to get to attend multiple summer enrichment programs, participate in any extracurricular I wanted, and live a very comfortable life. I have been able to pursue anything I have ever wanted and continue to have an immense amount of support from my family.
What are you concentrating on now?
As my junior year of college begins, I am focusing on getting back into the rhythm of a busy schedule. I am pursuing a chemistry major and Spanish minor so I will continue to complete my courses. I am preparing to take the MCAT and continue to build myself as a competitive applicant for medical school. In a few weeks school will start and I will be busy not only with classes, but with my dance team, sorority, volunteering at University Hospitals Rainbow Babies & Children’s Hospital, and working in the lab.