WHK Interns Highlight the Importance of Their Work

By Kaylee Towey, WHK Student Intern; images by Richard Frederickson and Joseph Meyer, Staff Photographers
WHK Intern Robert Byers at first aid training

In addition to his scientific work, Robert Byers (left) took first aid training as part of the WHK program.

The Werner H. Kirsten (WHK) student interns at the National Cancer Institute (NCI) at Frederick are participating in groundbreaking cancer research, along with large-scale projects and technological advancements, during their senior year of high school. The interns at NCI at Frederick are given more than the opportunity to watch the research; they participate in and conduct their own projects to contribute to the NCI mission.

Here is a close-up on three students and their work.

Evan Yamaguchi Works on RAS Inhibition  

Evan Yamaguchi, Synthetic Biologics and Drug Discovery Facility, was a 2017 Regeneron Science Talent Search Top Scholar, the first-place winner at the 2017 Frederick County Science and Engineering Fair, and a finalist at the 2017 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair. But he has an even greater accomplishment in being a WHK intern.

Yamaguchi’s work suggests a promising approach for the development of RAS inhibitors, which would inhibit K-RAS dependent tumor growth. RAS mutations underlie one-third of all cancers and almost all pancreatic cancers.

“My project has centered around uncovering the molecular mechanism by which synthetic peptide analogs of helix 5 of RAS inhibit K-RAS signaling,” Yamaguchi explained. “My data suggests that a role for helix 5 in RAS function and new mechanism of RAS activity regulation has been uncovered.”

In his proposed mechanism, the movement of helix 5 mediates RAS signaling by creating a loose association of the helix. This allows the helix 5 peptide analogs to bind to the exposed region of RAS, thus inhibiting tumor growth.

“It’s inspiring to come in every day and work with experienced scientists who willingly take time out of their immensely busy schedules to help me carry out an experience or answer one of my questions,” Yamaguchi said. “Working in a genuine biochemistry lab has not only helped me grow as a person, but it has also allowed me to begin to contribute something significant to the community around me.”

Yamaguchi will be continuing his work on RAS inhibitors this summer with Nadya Tarasova, Ph.D.

“As the first major research experience of my career, the WHK program has only enhanced my pursuit of scientific research as a future career,” Yamaguchi described. He will be attending the University of Maryland on a full academic scholarship and as part of the Honors College to study physics this fall.

“It has been the most academically intriguing and worthwhile experience I’ve participated in thus far. I’ve had to constantly absorb new information, learn and use new techniques and technologies, and critically think about the best plan of attack for my current problems,” Yamaguchi said of the WHK program.

Robert Byers Advances Automatic Tumor Identification

Robert Byers, Advanced Biomedical Computing Center, under mentor Yanling Liu, Ph.D., has created a program that can automatically detect and label cancer tumors based on images.

Using deep learning, which enables the computer to detect patterns and predict new information from the data provided, Byers’ program can identify the tumor type based on images. His program, which relies on many layers of artificial neural networks, learns to recognize tumors and then predict unidentified tumors by characterizing their appearances.

“My work will hopefully contribute to the pathologi[cal] realm [of] the cancer field,” Byers said.

His project aims to speed up the treatment process by using automatic identification to bypass the manual labeling of cancer tumors.

“This will allow for quicker identification of tumors and accurate treatment of the patients,” Byers explained.

In addition to cancer imaging, Byers has put his programming knowledge to use in developing a mobile application. He was responsible for the programming of WHK intern Austin Lajoie’s app project (see below), which aims to aid new interns at NCI at Frederick.

Byers will be attending the University of Maryland in the fall to study computer science. Through the WHK program, he has learned Python (a coding language), as well as the responsibilities of having a project and meeting deadlines.

The WHK program has “given [me] the opportunity to do meaningful high-level work and work alongside professionals,” Byers said. “My main goal is to do something that contributes to society.”

Austin Lajoie Leads Projects in IT Services

Austin Lajoie, Data Science Information Technology Program (DSITP), participates in project and operational work under mentor Roxanne Angell. He is the project manager for his initiative to design a mobile application for WHK interns, and he assists his mentor with IT service management.

Lajoie is on a team to unify the IT systems and services as part of a Health and Human Services (HHS) and National Institutes of Health goal. He works on the documentation, such as the statement of work and project charter. He is also involved in determining the business impact of the multimillion dollar project.

“It’s great that my mentor trusts my intuition to be part of her work,” Lajoie said.

Additionally, he is involved in doing metrics for the DSITP’s customers. Before Lajoie joined the DSITP, the “metrics were very convoluted and no one could understand them,” Lajoie described. “I brought the idea and led the initiative to simplify the reporting to have a greater impact on customers. I streamlined the project and made it really simple.”

He also creates a PowerPoint on DSITP services to be sent out every month and is responsible for creating the maintenance issue emails. Lajoie has done a poster presentation on the goals and importance of the DSITP, and how their work aligns with HHS goals. He also gives speeches at schools and speaks to interns to highlight how there is more to do at NCI at Frederick than just science in a lab.

“I’m not just punching numbers. The most intern-y thing I do is water my mentor’s plant sometimes,” Lajoie said.

Furthermore, Lajoie is the project manager for the development of an NCI at Frederick app for interns. NCI at Shady Grove was working concurrently on a similar project, and Lajoie changed tack to incorporate his app with theirs. He is currently working to upload NCI at Frederick content onto the Shady Grove app.

“Project Management has enabled me to sort of dip my toes into all of the facets of the NCI at Frederick campus, experiencing a wide array of studies and work,” Lajoie said.

Of the WHK program, Lajoie described how “nothing beats the experience of working in a truly professional environment.”

Lajoie will be attending George Washington University in the fall as part of the Honors College to study international affairs and economics. He hopes to one day work for the World Bank as an economist, and he said being a part of the WHK program has helped him grow his knowledge and prepared him to pursue his business interests.

“[The experience] gives me an edge and puts me a step [ahead] of everyone else,” Lajoie said.

Evan Yamaguchi (right) with teammate Anuk Dayaprema at the 10th Annual NCI at Frederick Scientific Library Student Science Jeopardy Tournament. Austin Lajoie at the 2016 first aid training.