High School: Rising senior at Shaker Heights High School
Description of project worked on: Characterizing patient derived mutations in the Aα subunit of Protein Phosphatase 2A (PP2A). We looked at the role of three common mutations in the tumorigenesis and pathogenesis of human cancers. Additionally, we looked to better understand the interacting proteins and the phosphoproteome of mutant and wildtype PP2A Aα.
Mentor and years in program: Dr. Goutham Narla and Caitlin O’Connor. I participated in the program during the summers of 2015 and 2016.
Skills obtained: In terms of laboratory technique, I learned to run the western blotting protocol and conduct basic cell culture work on my own. I also had the opportunity to observe and take part in drug screens and mouse studies. Away from the bench, I also got to learn to understand scientific literature, analyze and present data. Additionally, I got to experience the collaborative nature of the biomedical research field.
Future professional aspirations: I aspire to become a physician, and I plan to continue with cancer research throughout college and medical school.
How did you realize you were interested in research?
My mom is a colon cancer researcher, but I had always thought her work was boring. It was not until my sophomore year in high school that I became interested in research. That year, my AP Biology course was my favorite class, due to my teacher who was passionate about the subject and teaching his students. Even though it was a tough class, the material was so interesting that I decided to study more on my own to compete in the biology events in my school’s Science Olympiad club. Both of my parents saw my interest in the subject and encouraged me to find a lab to work at over the summer, through which I could explore and learn more about biology.
Why was it important for you to start the training process early?
I have to thank my mom for constantly nagging me to find something to do over the summer. Rather than take a job and work all summer like my friends, I decided I wanted to do something that was both intellectually challenging and meaningful.
How did you hear about the program?
Before I contacted Dr. Narla to ask to work in his lab, I researched some of his previous work and saw that he was the CEO of the program.
What excited you about the program?
I was surprised by how so much effort was put into mentoring the younger people who were new to the field. None of the other labs I had looked into had that same level of focus, and it really appealed to me, a high school student with no real lab experience.
What do you think is the biggest misconception about programs like this?
I think a lot of people may assume that it is way too much work for a high school or college student who has little to no lab experience, but that is not the case. There is a support system in the lab and everyone there is willing to help you learn. The program may push you to really learn and understand the topics and methods in the lab, but nothing will ever be impossible, especially with your mentor helping each step of the way.
What surprised you the most about the training experience?
I was surprised by how quickly I found myself working independently. After a few days of shadowing my mentors, then a week of helping them with their experiments, I was soon running a lot of the basic protocols on my own. Of course, my mentor was always next to me if I had any questions, but it was reassuring to be trusted within a couple weeks to run parts of experiments.
Was it difficult to balance your work schedule with other commitments when you were working in the lab?
My summer was pretty busy already with pre-season high school soccer but I worked out a schedule of running early in the morning, coming in to lab from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and then going to soccer practice in the evening. It was busy, but I also had a lot of fun.
How was your typical day in the lab structured?
Each day in the lab was different, depending on where you were with a particular experiment. Some days you’ll be working at the bench or in the hood all day, other days you’ll have lots of free time since you only have washes with the western blots. Free time is kind of misleading since most of this time would be used to read literature, discussing your project with your mentor, or analyzing and compiling data.
How was your mentors guiding your through the training process?
Both my mentors, Dr. Narla and Caitlin, were fantastic guides throughout the training. It was amazing to have people very knowledgeable in the field, while also being invested in supporting and directing me in the lab.
What was the most memorable thing about the training program?
Taking part in a drug screen during my first summer with the program was very memorable. Once a week during the summer, I volunteered at University Hospitals Seidman Cancer Center and got to interact with the patients staying there. While taking part in the drug screen process, I felt that I actually was helping come closer to finding a treatment option that could improve the life of a cancer patient.
What is the most beneficial thing you believe you learned during your training?
I came to the realization that I deeply enjoyed doing meaningful research that could help many people. It takes a lot of work to get a sleep-deprived high school student out of bed, but it was no problem for me as I always looked forward to working with the supportive people in the lab and dedicating my time to something that mattered.
How do you think this training experience will impact your future career?
I think this experience will help me think more analytically in a scientific setting. Through the program, I had the opportunity to experience how world-class research is conducted, and that is something that is invaluable for a high school student.
For those, considering starting the program, what would you advise?
Don’t be scared to take advantage of the opportunity available through this program. Very few high school students around the world will get to experience this type of mentorship in a lab environment, so make the best use of the exceptional resources provided to you.
What inspires you?
The cancer patients I saw every week for the past three years have been a huge inspiration for me, as I saw them fight back against cancer every single day. This has, and always will, inspire me to make the most of what I have and to fight back against any obstacles that will come during my lifetime. It puts the work I do in the lab into perspective as the research we conduct could fundamentally improve the lives of these very same people.
What are you thankful for?
I am thankful for Dr. Narla and The Young Scientist Foundation for helping me realize my deep interest in scientific research, and providing me the resources and guidance to thrive in the lab.
What are you concentrating on now?
I am currently focusing on college applications and my senior year of high school.