When Joshua Yu became a semifinalist in the 2019 Regeneron Science Talent Search, he continued a tradition he didn’t even know existed.
A Werner H. Kirsten (WHK) intern, Yu is the latest in a long line of students hailing from Nadya Tarasova, Ph.D.’s lab to make the semifinals in the Regeneron competition, which bills itself as the nation’s oldest and most prestigious science and math competition for high school seniors. One past intern was a finalist. Another won the Siemens Foundation Competition, a similarly prestigious contest for high school STEM students.
Though they come from different backgrounds and have gone on to disparate careers, all of Tarasova’s former interns—they number nearly a dozen—agree: if not for the WHK program, and especially Tarasova, they wouldn’t be where they are today.
For his part, Yu is “wonderful,” says Tarasova, who heads the Synthetic Biologics Facility at the Center for Cancer Research. “He’s very organized, which is very unusual for a boy his age.”
Though Yu originally planned to be a physician like his father, a well-known cardiologist in Frederick, his time with Tarasova has convinced him to pursue research instead. He’s currently working to make fully synthetic virus-like particles with multiple biologic activities.
Tarasova began working at Fort Detrick in 1991 as a scientist with the ABL Basic Research Program, and she has been working for NCI at Frederick since 1999. She began mentoring students in 1992, just one year after arriving on campus. While she humbly downplays any personal contribution to her students’ success, she concedes that her lab is a particularly good learning environment.
“We use lots of methodologies in my group, so they get a very broad array of experiences. Since we have state-of-the-art technologies in many fields, students get to take away that experience,” she said.
Tarasova is always eager to talk about her interns, all of whom she clearly cares for. Each year on the day after Christmas, she leads a group lunch in Frederick. The date is convenient because most of her former students have family in Frederick and are home for the holidays.
“We usually try to pick a new restaurant each year, whatever has opened in Frederick, so they can stay up-to-date on the restaurant scene. I look forward to this thing all year long, and they tell me that they do, too,” she says.
Many of her former interns have gone on to respected universities and careers. Liv Johannessen, a 2007 WHK intern, recently defended her Ph.D. thesis at Harvard and now works for a start-up whose research is entering clinical trials. Jerrett Remsberg, whose internship preceded Johannessen’s by one year, defended his thesis at the University of Pennsylvania and now has a postdoctoral fellowship at Scripps in San Diego.
Tarasova’s influence has even extended beyond work and into family life. Sam Pritt, a 2012 WHK intern who went to Princeton and now works for Bloomberg, met his future wife while interning with Tarasova. (Pritt’s wife, Kathryn, was interning next door with Tommy Turbyville, Ph.D.)
Both Tarasova and Turbyville were invited to the wedding, held at McClintock Distilling Company in downtown Frederick, where they received “special treatment” thanks to their serendipitous role in the couple’s relationship.
When asked what makes a great mentor, Tarasova said selflessness is the most important trait. She tries to encourage her students but doesn’t push them to go into science. On the contrary, she believes students should explore as many avenues as they can to spark their interest.
Meanwhile, anyone considering mentoring a student should know just how rewarding it can be.
“In science, frequently, you have to wait a really long time to see the results. But when you mentor students, you see the results very quickly,” she said. “They come in like blind kittens, but in several months, they start making their own decisions. It’s such a tremendous transformation.”
Finally, Tarasova wants everyone to know that a lot of work goes into the WHK program behind the scenes by people who don’t always get credit for their contributions.
“The people who run [the Werner H. Kirsten program] are very dedicated people, and we’re very fortunate to have them. They sincerely like those kids, they care about them,” said Tarasova. “The students are wonderful, and Frederick is so lucky to have the program.”