Tell us about a typical day at your co-op. How do you spend your time? What motivates you to do this work?
One thing I've learned during my short time so far at the MGH is that in a research lab, there is no typical day. Whenever I walk through the door, I know that there will be a unique challenge facing me. However, most of my work has centered around working on improving our lab's recently developed nanoplasmonic exosome assay (nPLEX). I have been working on a program for a microarray spotting system to allow for up to 25 solutions to be spotted onto a single nPLEX chip, with the hope of increasing throughput for these tests. Instead of spotting one antibody across an entire chip, multiple antibodies and duplicates of each antibody can be placed. Essentially, this requires preparing the nPLEX chips using various solutions depending on the desired outcome, aligning the program X- and Y- values, and validating the alignment with fluorescence imaging. When I am not working toward this primary goal, I find myself learning from the incredibly knowledgeable people around me. The MDs, PhDs, and other researchers are very supportive and let me observe their experiments, show patience when I ask questions, and give me interesting literature to read about innovative discoveries in nanotechnology.
I find myself very motivated to continue my work in such a welcoming educational environment for a variety of reasons. Most notably though, it is because of the people I am surrounded by at the Center for Systems Biology. Seeing how passionate my co-investigators are about their research is contagious. It amazes me each day to hear about the challenges they have faced, and how they have diligently and creatively overcome these obstacles. I envy their problem solving abilities, and I want to improve upon mine. With my mentors' help I believe I can make that improvement!
In what ways is CaNCURE contributing to your personal and professional learning objectives?
Coming into this co-op, I knew next to nothing about how to conduct nanomedicine research in a high-level laboratory setting. Simply put, I had never been exposed to lab research aside from the simple pipetting and microscopy I had done in my biochemistry, organic chemistry, etc. labs. This was really the essence of why I chose this co-op position. I wanted to challenge myself to improve my research knowledge and ability, and I believe I made the right decision. Each day, I am pushed out of my comfort zone (in a good way) when faced with dense nanomedicine articles, novel technology, and progress presentations in front of MDs and PhDs. Being so far out of my comfort zone is helping me grow as a scientific thinker/analyzer, and I believe that it will help me towards a career in medicine.
Additionally, I believe I am building a solid professional network with the connections I am making through Dr. Castro and the post-docs in the lab. Each person comes from such a unique background, with particular interests, expertise, and knowledge. I am privileged to be able to connect with such interesting individuals on a daily basis and to learn whatever I can from them in my time with this lab.
The schematic for the microarray spotting system I am establishing. Each group indicated by a different color represents a different solution. The groups are placed in a 96 well plate source as indicated in the above image and transferred to the chip in the order demonstrated.
Describe a challenge you have encountered during your co-op. How did you approach it? What did you learn from it?
Having never worked in a lab-based research setting, I have been challenged time and again over the past three months. Though a lot of my challenges have to do with fully comprehending the novel technologies and cutting edge science I am exposed to day in and day out, one of my biggest challenges so far had to do with something a bit more simple. Every Friday, the Biomedical Engineering sub-group of the Center for Systems Biology has their weekly update meeting. As a student under Dr. Castro, one of the main players in these meetings, I have been attending these meetings since my first week on the job. It is incredibly meaningful to be a part of a group of such intelligent post-docs, MDs, and other academics during their major brainstorming periods. Each PhD and researcher goes through their weekly updates on projects ranging from novel technology design to intense biological studies. Well once I received my badge and began working on my comparatively simple "beginner" projects, Dr. Castro and Hyungsoon encouraged me to present my work at the BME meetings. The first week I had to present, I was incredibly nervous. Having to present my work as an undergraduate in front of some of the highest level scientists in the world was a scary thought. However, I grew more and more accustomed to this and actually grew to enjoy and look forward to these meetings. Without a doubt, I learned to be comfortable in front of an audience and how to best defend my research in an academic setting.
What opportunities have you had during your co-op to apply skills and/or knowledge that you learned in the classroom?
I feel my biochemistry and genetics classes taught me the most about what I have been working on during my CaNCURE experience. I learned a lot of relevant biological laboratory techniques, vocabulary, etc. in these classes that have helped me to understand both the technology I am working with and the projects I am working on. One of the biggest elements of my projects involves antibody conjugation to bio-linkers and antigens. I was fortunate to have a strong background in this process from my biochemistry course at NEU.
The antibody conjugation procedure discussed earlier.
What new skills and knowledge have you acquired during your CaNCURE experience? What additional skills and knowledge would you like to acquire and why do you need them?
I have developed many new skills during my time in the CaNCURE program. I have become very comfortable with the nPLEX protocol, so much so that I have been tasked with training another student who will work with nPLEX in July and August. Additionally, I became very efficient at troubleshooting the microarray spotting system - something that is very useful to all members in the lab as many of the other members have not worked with the system as much as I have. Though I am very comfortable with the protocol that I have run, I think I would like to learn more about the science behind crafting the nPLEX chip itself. It has always just been given to me by my mentor Hyungsoon so I was never exposed to how the nanoholes were created, etc. Though it is not imperative to my success with the protocol or my projects, it is the natural scientist in me that wants to know more about how the nPLEX is developed.
How is your typical day different from the start of your co-op? Have any of your motivations changed? What new motivators do you have?
My typical day has changed quite a bit from the start of my co-op. A lot of the beginning of my co-op involved reading literature about my project, practicing the protocol, and learning about the technology I was using. Nowadays, I work very independently on my protocols for the day and collect and analyze my data on my own. It is an empowering thing to be trusted with high level science and novel technology - something I've never had the privilege of doing. Recently, my motivations became deadline oriented as I needed to run a certain number of patient samples on nPLEX in order to make a grant deadline. It was a stressful, busy time but it motivated me to complete my work both efficiently and successfully as possible.
The pancreatic cancer proof-of-concept study conducted to date. Progress is still ongoing with plans of publication in the fall.
Revisit the challenge you described in April. Having had the experiences you had since, would you approach it differently today? Why / why not?
The challenge I described in April was my weekly presentation at the BME meetings. It is funny, because now I don't even consider this a hassle at all. I am so comfortable around the people in my lab that I look forward to hearing what they think about my research and answering any questions they might have about my work. I definitely approach these meetings differently now as I used to ramble on about my work and take much longer than I should. Now I present my work in 3-5 minutes allowing more time for constructive criticism from my lab members.
Describe an ideal future co-op experience. How will it be different from and/or build upon your CaNCURE experience?
It is hard for me to describe an ideal future co-op. First of all, I will not be going on any additional co-ops. Second, and most importantly, I believe that having an open mind to all options and not narrowing your search or setting expectations at all is the best way to approach the process. That is one of the reasons I accepted this position. I knew it was something new, exciting, and different that I had never learned anything about before. So I took a chance and reaped the benefits. If I had had a narrow mind about my expectations, say to find a traditional biology lab experience, I would've skipped right over this unique, incredible opportunity to spend time with incredible people.
Some members of my lab group at a birthday celebration!