Caldwell, N.J., Sep. 9, 2019- Several students from Caldwell University’s Department of Natural Sciences participated in summer research internships taking them all across the United States. The internships challenged the students academically and gave them clarity or confirmation for their future endeavors.
For the second summer, Marina Schlaepfer, a junior majoring in biology and minoring in chemistry, returned to the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus to participate in the Gates Summer Internship Program. Over the course of 11 weeks, interning with 20 other students, Schlaepfer explored cardiology under Lori Walker, Ph.D.
“Specifically, I researched unlocking the plasticity of cardiac myocytes to harness the regenerative potential of the heart,” Schlaepfer explained. “I was able to identify unique cellular signaling pathways and factors from cardiac fibroblasts that can contribute to cardiac myocytes being more proliferative and fetal-like [or dedifferentiated].”
When a person suffers a heart attack, the muscle cells of the heart, cardiac myocytes, usually die instead of regenerating, but according to Schlaepfer, Walker’s lab had found that some other mature heart cells can become less mature and then turn into myocytes, allowing the heart to replace the damaged muscle cells.
Completing the internship confirmed to her that she wants to pursue cardiology.
“I have always known I loved cardiology, and this just made me realize how much I truly love it,” she said. “The heart is so fascinating to me, as it’s such a hardworking machine.”
Schlaepfer is considering taking an M.D.-Ph.D. route so she can become a clinician-scientist or a physician who also conducts research.
In addition to Dr. Lori, Schlaepfer said she was thankful to senior research assistant Yanmei Du for providing guidance on her project.
Kofi Mireku, a senior, also conducted his research at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus as part of the cancer research summer fellowship program at the campus’s Cancer Center.
Under the supervision of Dr. Medhi Fini, a doctor-researcher and assistant professor at the Anschutz Medical Campus Center of Cardiovascular and Pulmonary Diseases, Mireku conducted his research in the field of breast cancer.
“We began a pilot study on xanthine oxidoreductase and ROS [reactive oxygen species] tolerance on E0771 breast cancer cells,” Mireku said.
Before this experience, Mireku had never worked with animals or on in vivo techniques. Inoculating the mammary glands of premenopausal and postmenopausal mice with the E0771 breast cancer cells, Mireku measured for tumor growth in both groups.
While collecting data, however, he and Fini accidentally found that the genes that code for XOR—an enzyme that generates ROS, a molecule believed to encourage cancer growth—appeared to have been removed from the tumor growth in postmenopausal mice.
This led Fini and Mireku to hypothesize that XOR plays a significant role in controlling the function of fibroblasts found in the breast.
Though the research is ongoing, Mireku said he finished the first phase and shared his data with the academic community in a poster presentation on campus.
Thanks to this internship, Mireku said he fulfilled his goal of understanding the dynamics of being both a medical professional and a researcher, which cemented his conviction to pursue a career in medicine. He was also able to network with other professionals, which led him to another opportunity over the summer that exposed him to clinical experiences.
Aarion Romany, an international student from Trinidad and Tobago, a senior majoring in chemistry and minoring in marketing, found it challenging to find a research program that would accept an international student. After applying to several programs, Romany was accepted for the summer undergraduate research fellowship program offered by the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences.
“There I was assigned a mentor who was a funded principal investigator,” Romany said. “The lab I joined studies a protein called human DNA helicase B (HELB). It is a protein that is involved in repairing our DNA as it’s damaged.”
Although this was his second internship, Romany said it was the first time he had conducted research at an R01 institution, one that receives large research grants from the National Institutes of Health. Romany said that the internship “was a wonderful experience” and that he plans to go to graduate school.
Romany advised other international students who are looking for research internships not to give up or to “limit the scope of where you look for research opportunities.” He encouraged exploring possibilities throughout the United States because that’s what led him to Arkansas, but he said the best place to start is at Caldwell University’s independent undergraduate research program. “Through this program I was prepared for conducting research, troubleshooting, thinking, and even giving presentations,” he said.
Keith Kyewalabye, a junior majoring in biology and minoring in music, who is an international student hailing from Uganda, also had difficulty finding research opportunities.
Over two summers, Kyewalabye applied to more than 40 programs and finally was accepted to two for the summer. He chose the summer undergraduate research program held at the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center at the University of Texas.
“I was doing cancer research. More specifically, the project I was working on was helping to understand this gene called ATM,” he said. “I was studying the effects of a mutation on this gene [and] its expression.”
ATM, or ataxia telangiectasia-mutated, plays an important role in fixing damaged DNA by releasing a protein to repair mutations. However, Kyewalabye explained that some cancers might mutate the gene, causing it to release a “defunct protein” that cannot repair DNA well. The Food and Drug Administration, he noted, has approved drugs that target the mutated ATM, shutting down its ability to repair cancerous DNA, thus causing the cancer to die.
Kyewalabye said some people who have the mutated ATM gene, and who are expected to respond well to the medication, do not respond as anticipated, because not all mutated ATM genes produce a defunct protein.
“I was trying to understand what types of mutations result in defunct proteins and what types of mutations leave proteins working.”
Kyewalabye found his internship experience insightful, and he realized that one can work in a clinical setting and in research. He hopes to become a neurosurgeon and is considering applying to M.D.-Ph.D. programs.
Right across the street from where Kyewalabye was conducting his research, Ngima Sherpa, a biology and chemistry major who is set to graduate in December 2019, was conducting her research as part of the summer biomedical research internship or SMART program at Baylor College of Medicine (BCM) in Houston.
“I did not know her before, but a mutual friend of ours told me she was in Houston as well, working in a hospital across the street from me, and we eventually got into contact and connected over the summer,” Kyewalabye said.
“We bonded quickly,” Sherpa said. “It was really nice to meet someone from home in a new town.”
During her nine weeks at BCM, Sherpa worked at the Center for Drug Discovery in the lab of Dr. Dr. Nihan Ucisik and Dr. Martin Matzuk.
“I was new to the lab’s research area of drug repurposing through computational chemistry, given my previous background in biological research, but my mentors were very instrumental in helping me learn the concepts of computational chemistry and different cheminformatic techniques,” Sherpa said.
BCM “is an incredible hub for cutting-edge scientific research, providing the perfect environment for thriving young scientists,” she said. Because of her research experience, Sherpa decided to pursue a Ph.D. She will be giving a presentation on her research in Hawaii this fall.
Fellow senior Shreyoshi Hossain, a biology major minoring in chemistry and business, participated in a summer internship at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on Long Island where she worked on a computational biology project.
“I was quite nervous for a couple of reasons, firstly because this was the first time I would be working with a programming language and second because I would be working in the institution ranked number one in academic research worldwide by the scientific journal Nature,” Hossain said.
Luckily, with the support of her mentor, Dr. Hannah Meyer, Hossain was encouraged to learn through trial and error, and by the end of her internship she had mastered a new programming language called R, written a 20-page paper titled “Literature Mining for Human Pathogens” and presented her research to experienced scientists.
“Although it was an intense few weeks, I am so grateful for the experience,” Hossain said.
In addition to conducting research during their internships, students attended seminars where they met professional researchers and learned about their fields. In some cases, they had an opportunity to shadow physicians.
Among the other students doing research this summer were Amelia Biswas, who worked at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, and Prasad Gyawali, who interned at the Henry E. Riggs School of Applied Life Sciences at the Keck Graduate Institute in California as part of the Bioprocessing Summer Undergraduate Internship Training and Education Program.
– Deborah Balthazar ’17