young-scientist-olga-kovalenkoName: Olga Kovalenko

High school or college: I graduated from Mayfield High School in 2012, located in Mayfield Heights, Ohio. In January of 2016, I graduated cum laude from Case Western Reserve University with a double major in Biology and International Studies and a minor in Chemistry. In July of 2016, I will be attending the Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine, pursuing an MD degree.

Name of mentor: Dr. Analisa DiFeo

Years in program: I have worked in Dr. DiFeo’s laboratory from the summer of 2012 to 2016.

Description of research project: In Dr. Analisa DiFeo’s laboratory, we study the genetic basis of ovarian cancer. The deadly nature of ovarian cancer is attributed to two main factors characteristic of the disease: common late-stage diagnosis and patient resistance to the standard chemotherapy drug, cisplatin. As a result, we have projects that focus on finding molecular biomarkers for early detection, which would allow for early treatment of the disease. In addition, we have been uncovering the biochemical pathways responsible for cisplatin resistance.

Skills obtained: Through my work in Dr. DiFeo’s laboratory, I have developed a number of skills including Western blotting, RNA and protein isolation, clonogenics and cell culture. I have also learned to analyze papers and think analytically and critically about both scientific literature and data.

Future professional aspirations: In the future, I hope to work in the field of women’s health as an OB/GYN. I also would like to maintain my strong scientific background by continuing to perform research alongside my medical training.

How did you realize you were interested in research and science?

Ever since I was a young girl, I have always been interested in learning about the ways the world works. With my grandfather, I would watch scientific PBS specials and I always noticed that Biology was my best subject in high school. However, I never had the confidence to pursue a career in medicine or science, as I believed that these fields were inaccessible to someone without preexisting connections to physicians and scientists. When I came to Case Western Reserve University, however, I realized that many of my peers were aspiring to enter these fields, which I viewed to be beyond my reach, so I decided to take a chance and follow suit.

I deeply doubted that I would get the opportunity to work in her laboratory, especially without any previous scientific experience or laboratory skills.

How did you hear about the program?

Working in Dr. Analisa DiFeo’s laboratory happened completely by chance, but it changed my perspective completely. Dr. DiFeo’s sister was getting married and her bridal party, which included Dr. DiFeo, came in to the bridal store where my mother works as a tailor. This occurred while I was still a senior in high school and decided to attend Case Western Reserve University for college. My mother mentioned me to Dr. DiFeo, who had just moved to the same institution and was opening up a laboratory at the School of Medicine. Dr. DiFeo emphasized that she enjoyed mentoring students and gave my mother her business card, which my mother later passed on to me.

I knew that I needed to get a job in college immediately and just as I was about to sign the paperwork to begin working in the Cleveland Botanical Gardens, I decided to take a chance and call Dr. DiFeo. I deeply doubted that I would get the opportunity to work in her laboratory, especially without any previous scientific experience or laboratory skills. However, I was hoping she would point me in the right direction to obtain the research experience that I needed as a premedical student. However, I was completely shocked and awed when not only did Dr. DiFeo explain to me her groundbreaking research, but also offered me a position in her laboratory. Christine and Peronne, who were already working in Dr. DiFeo’s laboratory, patiently taught me everything that I know about research and gave me the skillset I needed to continue working in the lab for the rest of my undergraduate career.

Science is perceived as this mysterious field that is only found in textbooks, not as something a student could explore for a future career.

What do you think is the biggest misconception among high school students about working in a research lab?

When I was in high school, I had severe misconceptions about the fields of science and medicine. I assumed that they would be inaccessible to me due to my immigrant background. I thought that the only way to enter such elite fields would be through networking with preexisting connections.

Science was always intimidating to me, and though I was always interested in it, I did not think that I realistically could participate in research. I think that many students, who do not have any relatives or family friends in research or medical fields, may feel this way. Science is perceived as this mysterious field that is only found in textbooks, not as something a student could explore for a future career.

What opportunities for research were you given in high school?

Other than the laboratory components of AP Chemistry, AP Biology and Anatomy, I had very little experience in a laboratory setting in high school. In those classes we performed the standard dissections and titrations, but those opportunities were limited and were not research-based.

What is the typical day in the lab like for you?

Typically, in the laboratory I am given cell pellets by the post-doc that I work under, Anil, who grows them in the cell culture hood. I then work with these cells to isolate their protein content, quantify the proteins, run them on a gel and analyze the proteins using antibodies. This protocol typically takes two days. Occasionally I am given other protocols to do, but for the most part, I am in charge of Western blots.

When I found out that I was accepted into medical school, Dr. DiFeo was the first person that I told.

Can you describe the mentoring process you are going through?

Dr. DiFeo has extensively mentored me throughout my undergraduate experience. Because she has a similar background, with immigrant parents who had no connections to science in the United States, I related to her. Dr. DiFeo is also extremely approachable and kind – she would always be excited to hear about my accomplishments in the classroom as well as in the laboratory. Whenever I would do well on an exam, I would run into her office to tell her the great news. When I found out that I was accepted into medical school, she was the first person that I told.

During lab meetings, we would have discussions and I would be encouraged to participate. I found this very gratifying, as I felt that learned with each meeting. I definitely know that I needed Dr. DiFeo’s encouragement as an undergraduate, as I would have had no idea what to do to navigate the complicated fields of science and medicine without her guidance. She always believed that I would succeed, and I can say that it was extremely motivating to have someone with a similar background as me, who has succeeded so much, believe in me.

I felt so validated when I saw my name in the publication…

Can you describe your most memorable experience with the program?

My most memorable experience that occurred as a result of the program was the publication that our laboratory authored in June 2015, on which I was third author. I felt so validated when I saw my name in the publication and my Western blots throughout the paper – I realized that my work was really making a difference in the laboratory and was helping us get tangible, publishable results. Additionally, seeing the paper itself was very gratifying as before coming to the laboratory, I always felt intimidated by research papers, but now, I was an author on one.

What was the most surprising aspect of the summer research program experience?

I was very surprised when I was told how much the work I did was valued by everyone that worked in the lab. I had originally assumed that as an undergraduate my work would not make a difference and that I would be a burden to the other people who would be engaged in “real science.” I was pleasantly surprised to see that I have been a valued contributor to the body of work that we have produced and that everyone was very patient and kind in teaching me everything that I know.

What was the most challenging thing in the summer research program?

One of the most challenging aspects of working in the laboratory was finding the time to run experiments during the school year. Because some protocols take several hours to complete, occasionally even a few days, it was difficult to schedule the time to work. However, I was able to do so, especially in weeks when I had less of a workload. Additionally, during summers and breaks I was able to work full-time.

The work I did in the lab could one day translate to helping patients with ovarian cancer…

What made this experience meaningful to you?

Working in Dr. DiFeo’s laboratory has undoubtedly been the highlight of my undergraduate career. I gained confidence in myself not only in terms of my scientific and analytical skills (I have learned more about biochemistry and biology working in the lab than I have in any of my classes), but I also realized that I could contribute to something much bigger and more important than myself. The work I did in the lab could one day translate to helping patients with ovarian cancer, which is so meaningful to me as a person who is both passionate about women’s health and as someone whose relatives have been afflicted with cancer.

When I was younger, I struggled with low self-esteem and did not think that I was intelligent enough, nor well-connected enough to participate in scientific research or medicine. Working in the laboratory has allowed me to realize that I was wrong: everyone starts from somewhere. Through the patience of Dr. DiFeo and her team, I have learned so more about myself than I ever imagined.

For those considering starting the program, what would you advise?

I would advise them to not feel intimidated by the scientists working in the lab. As a high school student, I would have been afraid to approach a scientist, but it is important to realize that everyone in the program is willing to help you learn and grow as an individual.

What inspires you?

I am inspired by my mother and my grandfather. Both of them overcame extraordinary obstacles in order to bring me to the United States and give me a better future and I hope that everything that I accomplish will make them proud.

I am also inspired by Dr. DiFeo, she has always said that she sees some of herself in me and I am so honored that she says so. To me, she is a role model and a hero, a person that I aspire to be, and I am eternally grateful to her for encouraging me and believing in me.

What are you thankful for?

I am thankful to have the opportunity to attend Case Western Reserve University and participate in The Young Scientist Foundation program. I have changed for the better in so many ways as a result of the research that I have done, in both my personal and professional life, and I am grateful that I have the confidence in myself to succeed in the scientific and medical fields.

What are you concentrating on now?

I am currently working the Dr. DiFeo’s laboratory. I graduated a semester early, in January rather than May of 2016; therefore, I essentially have a ‘gap semester.’ In July 2016, I will begin medical school at Case Western Reserve University. I hope to return to the lab one day, either for my research thesis or for a year of research.