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Summer School at University of Pennsylvania

Over the last few years, I have realised that I have developed a keen interest in biology, and its relationship with the other sciences. When I was ten, my dad had bought me a microscope – a  laboratory microscope, not the toy variety – as he noticed my growing interest in the subject. In our free time, we would spend hours together observing insects, plants and other objects under the microscope. He used to share with me articles from Scientific American and National Geographic magazines, as well as make me listen to podcasts like Science Friday and Radiolab. Learning about these scientific advancements further piqued my curiosity about the subject, and I wondered what the life of a biologist would be like – what were the kinds of experiments they carried out, what were the possible applications of their research – and how deep, and broad, was the scope of their studies. I wanted to become a biologist, and work in a laboratory on research projects, which could potentially help us in our quest to prevent disease and degeneration. I wanted to learn first-hand how a team of biologists goes about setting up experiments in a laboratory, and the various instruments and techniques employed by them.

I requested my father to help me find a university that would accept high-school students as summer interns. We scanned the websites of various universities in the US, and discovered that some colleges had summer school programmes to help students identify specific courses that suited their interests and aptitude, and others had campus tours to help students familiarise themselves with the college environment and the resources that would be available to them as students.

We sent applications to the University of Pennsylvania as well as to the University of Florida, based on useful advice from some friends of my father’s, who are members of the faculty at these universities. After a few weeks of nervous anticipation, we received an encouraging response from the Department of Cancer Biology, Abramson Family Cancer Research Institute at the Perelman School of Medicine of the University of Pennsylvania.

Soon, I was on my way to Philadelphia to experience for myself, the great wonders of cancer biology and genetics research.

On my first day, I was introduced to the graduate and post-doc students from the lab whom I would ‘shadow’, as they conducted their experiments to prove or disprove their hypotheses. I was also given a brief on the area of cancer research carried out by the lab headed by Dr. Sandra Ryeom, who is also an Associate Investigator at the university.

Among other topics, her team has been conducting research on people with Down Syndrome, with a view to understanding the genomic foundation and mechanisms that protect them from solid tumours, and how this understanding could pave the way for a future cure for certain types of cancer.

Though it took me a while to understand the various concepts and mechanisms, Dr. Ryeom was very forthcoming in helping me absorb them, willingly taking time out of her busy schedule to explain the workings of these complex processes. She also shared with me with several technical papers which provided the context to the experiments carried out in her lab.

During the course of my internship, I learned how mouse models are used in experiments – the extraction of relevant cells and tissues by dissection to carry out in vitro experiments. I observed how various techniques such as flow cytometry, gel electrophoresis, and the Western blot, are conducted. I also observed how meticulous researchers need to be in order to keep all their working surfaces and instruments sterile during the course of their experiments, and to protect themselves from hazardous substances and accidents. I learned how patient and persistent biologists need to be as they wait for their experiments to bear results, or in the event of an experiment failing.

To conclude, I have had a most rewarding learning experience in the tutelage of Dr. Ryeom and her protégés, Allyson Lieberman and Olivia Farrelly. In a short period of three weeks, I was able to get a good glimpse of the range and sophistication of projects undertaken by researchers at a world-class lab in an Ivy League university. My stint at UPenn has further kindled my interest in the fast-moving field of molecular biology, and I look forward to going back for an internship next summer, this time with a much deeper understanding of the subject. My internship at Penn has certainly reinforced my aspirations of pursuing a career in research, with the hope that some day, I would be able to bring about a positive and significant change in the lives of those dealing with intractable afflictions.

-Zayna Siddiqi


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