The Werner H. Kirsten (WHK) program, a long-standing institution in Frederick, recently graduated its 32nd class. This unique internship opportunity continues to catapult many high school seniors on the path to STEM careers. Before the 2023 WHK student interns concluded their internships, WHK Program Manager Carrie Wagerman wanted to ensure they were recognized for their achievement in completing the rigorous program. She asked them to share a little about themselves, their plans for the future, and some takeaways from their experience. Read their responses below.
Program/Laboratory: NCI Laboratory of Cell and Developmental Signaling, Membrane Trafficking and Signaling Section, Westlake Laboratory
Mentor: Christopher J. Westlake, Ph.D.
Co-Mentor: Ziam Khan
School: Graduated Urbana High School and planning to attend Purdue University with a major in engineering
About Me: I am a senior at Urbana High School. I am involved in several extracurricular activities, including track and club activities.
Internship Project: Characterization of Ciliogenesis Membrane Structures. I conducted ultrastructure analysis using the software Dragonfly to map and identify structures involved in the assembly of the primary cilium. Electron microscopy images captured from cells are converted into 3D representations of the developing cilium. We use the imaging software to generate 2D and 3D animation structure models for presentations and publications.
Takeaways: This internship has been extremely helpful in advancing my knowledge and experience with software, 3D modeling, and biological processes and for giving me real workplace experience. This internship has shaped my career goals because now I see a multidisciplinary career in computer engineering and healthcare as a viable option for my future.
Program/Lab: NCI Cancer and Developmental Biology Laboratory
Mentor: Jairaj Acharya, MBBS, Ph.D.
Co-Mentor: K.V. Abhilasha, Ph.D.
School: Graduated Governor Thomas Johnson High School and planning to attend the University of Maryland, College Park, with a major in neuroscience
About Me: I am interested in pursuing an M.D./Ph.D. My hobbies include photography, nature walks, dancing, and reading books.
Internship Project: Generation of a lipase mutant using CRISPR-Cas9 in Drosophila. CG6277 is a Drosophila lipase enzyme of the lipid metabolic pathway and has been previously shown to be important for regulating energy metabolism in mutations affecting sphingolipid flux. This project focuses on using the CRISPR-Cas9 system (a genome-editing technology originally discovered in bacteria) to generate a fly mutant that has a deletion of the CG6277 Lipase gene. To accomplish this, four gRNAs were designed that targeted the opposite strands at the two ends of the gene encoding for CG6277. Two potential colonies were found. The next steps will involve sequencing the clones and generating transgenic flies using the plasmids containing the correct clone. These flies will then be crossed to flies expressing the Cas9 gene. Progenies generated from this cross will be segregated and grown as single fly stocks. They will then be screened for mutants with the expected deletion in the CG6277 gene. Once a fly with a deletion in the CG6277 is obtained, it will be expanded to establish a stock and used for further phenotypic analysis.
Takeaways: I learned a lot of new research techniques, including Western blot and CRISPR gene editing. I will continue to use these skills in the future. These interests pushed me to pursue medical research and gave me an insight into what research is like.
Program/Laboratory: NCI, Laboratory of Cell and Developmental Signaling, Molecular Mechanisms in Development Section
Mentor: Balamurugan Kuppusamy, Ph.D.
Co-Mentor: Esta Sterneck, Ph.D.
School: Graduated Governor Thomas Johnson High School and planning to attend the University of Maryland, College Park, with a major in public health
About Me: In my free time, I enjoy staying active, playing tennis and basketball. I also enjoying listening to music, cooking, and spending time with friends and family. In school, I am a part of the tennis team, National Honor Society, International Club, and more, and I enjoy being active in my school community.
Internship Project: Investigating the role of prostaglandin E2 (PGE2) receptors and AKT signaling in E-cadherin-mediated cell-cell adhesion as a cell survival mechanism of breast cancer cells. Inflammatory Breast Cancer (IBC) is a rare but aggressive subtype of breast cancer responsible for 10% of all breast-cancer-related deaths. IBC retains high expression of the cell-cell adhesion molecule E-cadherin and often presents with intralymphatic tumor cell emboli. We use an in vitro 3D culture paradigm to study the signaling pathways that promote cell–cell adhesion and may thereby contribute to tumor cell survival.
Takeaways: The main thing I learned was how the research field operates and the amount of work it takes to reach an end goal. I found it takes a lot of patience, perseverance, and mental toughness to effectively perform experiments, analyze data, and make conclusions. I also learned about the importance of collaboration and discussion. Another thing I will take away from this internship was time management skills. Managing my time for experiments in the laboratory, as well as balancing time in the laboratory with school and extracurriculars was a challenge, but I am now better prepared for the type of schedule I might have in college and beyond. While there were so many things I learned from my internship, these were the most important.
Program: FNL, Virtual Enterprise Information Technology (EIT) Directorate
Mentor: Roxanne Angell, PMP
Co-Mentor: Stacy Taylor
School: Graduated Governor Thomas Johnson High School and planning to attend Yale University with a major in economics and computer science
About Me: My curiosity lies at the intersection of computer science, politics, and society. In college, I’d like to explore how computational thinking and automation can be applied to interpret data, predict outcomes, and understand reality for all areas from natural sciences to humanities and the arts. I have a strong interest in quantitative community-based research as a means of uncovering truth. I’m excited about finding ways to reduce addictions in our society. My efforts to educate youth about the dangers of addictions have led me to believe that the solutions lie in having the right political policy, allocating enough resources, and directing resources to the right areas. We also need mathematical models for addiction rates and quantification of risk factors. This would direct our resource allocation for maximum results. Perhaps knowing enough code to build and automate these dynamic models would better help keep track of data.
Internship Project: Project Management. We successfully transferred the data from an old legacy site to an upgraded Java SharePoint site for each NCI program.
Takeaways: I learned the importance of project management and its value to everyday life. I learned to proactively identify and manage risks and issues while managing schedules and tasks.
Program/Laboratory: NCI Laboratory of Cell and Developmental Signaling, Membrane Trafficking and Signaling Section, Westlake Laboratory
Mentor: Christopher J. Westlake, Ph.D.
Co-Mentor: Ziam Khan
School: Graduated Urbana High School and planning to attend Vanderbilt University with a major in computer engineering
About Me: I am part of the National Math Honors Society and a chapter leader for the DMV region and volunteer for Girls Computing League. I am a Schoolhouse and North South Foundation tutor and have taught an SAT bootcamp for high school students and Python programming and geography classes to middle and high schoolers. I know Python, Java, AI, machine learning, and robotics. I coached FIRST Lego League and FIRST Tech Challenge. I also competed in the FIRST Robotics Competition, FIRST Tech Challenge (state level), Science Olympiad (state level runner-up), and Academic Bee (1st Place). Some of my other extracurriculars include dance and tennis.
Internship Project: Ciliogenesis. I researched the nanostructures involved in ciliogenesis and worked to find better methods of computational analysis, which led to theorizing more progressive research methods.
Takeaways: I’ve learned important lessons about teamwork and communication. The other interns and I learned that meeting on video calls was helpful in holding each other accountable, so we took initiative by setting up times to meet without our mentors present. When we made the concerted effort to correspond our data sets, our results were quicker and more professional. In retrospect, the patience of our mentors throughout the process has also been helpful in teaching us how to make good work habits. Learning how to balance our strengths and weaknesses is an important skill that I will carry into my professional life in the future.
Jennifer Nancy Lombardo
Program/Laboratory: NCI Mouse Cancer Genetics Program, Hematopoiesis and Stem Cell Biology Section, Keller Laboratory
Mentor: Tanmoy Sarkar, Ph.D.
School: Graduated Governor Thomas Johnson High School and planning to attend the University of Maryland, College Park, with a major in biochemistry
About Me: I was the captain of the varsity soccer and basketball teams, the president of the National Science Honor Society, and the vice president of the Key Club in high school. I am also a certified soccer referee and a hostess at Dutch’s Daughter Restaurant. I am from a family of six and love to spend my time hanging out with friends, reading, or working out.
Internship Project: AML Research: ID2 Gene Knockdown studies. I studied the gene ID2 and its role in leukemic stem cells. We conducted single cell assays with numerous AML cell lines, including UT7, AML2, MO7E, and THP1, and knocked down the ID2 gene to see cell proliferation when ID2 was present or not.
Takeaways: I learned how to read a scientific article, how to perform numerous scientific experiments, how to navigate a laboratory, how to create data representations using different sources, about different career path options, and what being a researcher is like.
Program: FNL, Enterprise Information Technology (EIT), Partnership Development Office (PDO)
Mentor: Vladimir Popov, Ph.D.
School: Graduated Tuscarora High School and planning to attend a four-year college and earn a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry or public health, or complete an eight-year pre-med health scholars BS/MD program
Internship Project: Project Management. I created two clones for my laboratory.
Program/Laboratory: NCI Mouse Cancer Genetics Program, Tumor Angiogenesis Unit, St. Croix Laboratory
Mentor: Pradip Bajgain, Ph.D.
School: Graduated Poolesville High School and planning to attend Rice University with a major in biological sciences and a concentration in cell biology and genetics
About Me: I love spending time outdoors with my friends: going on walks, playing volleyball and tennis, and going on bike rides. I also love cooking and baking—especially making pizza—and I’m always ready to try out new recipes! I also really enjoy playing board games and watching movies with my family.
Internship Project: Engineering NK-92 cells with BiTEs for cancer immunotherapy. In this project, my mentor and I worked to genetically engineer NK-92 cells with bi-specific T-cell engagers (BiTEs) to help stimulate T cells and drive a more effective anti-tumor response. To test BiTE efficacy, we set up many co-culture assay experiments over the course of the year. These assays have shown some levels of an anti-tumor response occurring, mediated by the BiTE, but the methods will need to be further optimized, and more tests will need to be performed, including animal studies, to better understand the efficacy of this strategy.
Takeaways: I’ve learned more about the inner workings of the immune system, including vital cells and cytokines needed in an immune response. In addition, I built up laboratory skills, like setting up co-culture assays, and even got the opportunity to design smaller-scale experiments on my own. Outside of my newfound scientific knowledge, I’ve improved my soft skills, like public speaking, through the various provided research events.
Program/Laboratory: NCI, Cancer Innovation Laboratory, Model Development Section, KewalRamani Laboratory (HIV Research)
Mentor: KyeongEun Lee, Ph.D.
School: Graduated Urbana High School and planning to attend Temple University
About Me: I love biology, learning new things, and just hanging out with friends.
Internship Project: Plasmid Clone Construction. I created two clones for my laboratory, with minor adjustments ongoing to the second.
Takeaways: My main takeaway was learning to be more patient and look for new ways to solve problems. I became a better problem solver in life and developed a true appreciation for research.
Program/Laboratory: NCI, Cancer and Developmental Biology Laboratory, Genetics of Vertebrate Development Section, Lewandoski Laboratory
Mentor: Mathew Anderson, Ph.D.
Co-Mentor: Mark Lewandoski, Ph.D.
School: Graduated Francis Scott Key High School and planning to attend the University of Maryland, College Park, with a major in bioengineering
About Me: I’m from Carroll County and I’m interested in foreign language and developmental biology research.
Internship Project: Exploring genetic interactions between FGF ligands and FGF receptors during mouse embryo axis extension.
Fgf signaling plays roles in mesoderm/Pre Somitic Mesoderm (PSM) and somite (derived from the PSM) formation. Knockouts of Fgfs that have these roles (e.g., Fgfr1, Fgfr2, Fgf4, and Fgf8) result in axis extension defects. To enhance our understanding of the FGF ligand FGF receptor interaction and role in axis extension, we use conditional knockouts of our target genes. We produced TCre; Fgfr1; Fgfr2; Fgf8 (T128) triple knockout mice to view PSM formation and derivatives for comparison with the TCre; Fgfr1; Fgfr2 knockouts. We looked at various stages to determine if the TCre Fgf8 knockout worsens the TCre; Fgfr1; Fgfr2 phenotype. We plan to produce the TCre; Fgfr1; Fgfr2; Fgf4 (T124) triple knockout and perform a similar analysis as with the T128 project. We will then compare T128 and T124 to answer the question of whether Fgf4 or Fgf8 has a larger requirement in axis extension.
Takeaways: The WHK internship has introduced me to the working world of developmental biology and assisted in developing my career goals.
Dillen B. Owusu
Program/Laboratory: NCI, Mouse Cancer Genetics Program, Neural Development Section
Mentor: Lino Tessarollo, Ph.D.
Co-Mentor: Francesco Tomassoni-Ardori, Ph.D.
School: Graduated Governor Thomas Johnson High School and planning to attend the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) with a major in biomedical engineering
About Me: I ran track at Governor Thomas Johnson High School and will be running track at RPI. I was the Student Government Association president and love STEM-related activities. I am a 2023 Destination Imagination State champion and own/play for my own E-sports organization in my free time.
Internship Project: CRISPR/Cas9 Generation of a TrkC.T1 Mouse Model with a V5 Tag for in vivo expression studies. We generated a mouse model with a v5 tag to track its expression in vivo. The mouse models have yet to be born.
Takeaways: What I’ve learned is that nothing is going to be easy if you are learning it for the first time; you always must be open to criticism, suggestions, and advice. Another very important takeaway is to always overprepare and that it is never good to be late when organizing things in the STEM field.
Program/Laboratory: NCI Molecular Targets Program/Chemical Diversity Development Section
Mentor: John Beutler, Ph.D.
Co-Mentor: Chris Wolcott
School: Graduated Urbana High School and planning to attend the University of Maryland, College Park, with a major in computer science
About Me: I am passionate about computer science and excited to explore its various niches. I hope to help create change in the world and improve technology. Some of my hobbies include kayaking, going to the gym, coding, and cooking.
Internship Project: NCI-Molecular Targets Program Web Module Development. I created various web modules to help scientists, such as a user interface in which scientists can interact to gather data and read spreadsheets. Scientists can use this freely and provide suggestions to improve the site.
Takeaways: My main takeaway was that computer science is a team process that involves both dedication and passion to perfect. I am very thankful for my mentors and am excited for what the future holds.
Program/Laboratory: NCI, Laboratory of Cell and Developmental Signaling, Membrane Trafficking and Signaling Section, Westlake Laboratory
Mentor: Christopher Westlake, Ph.D.
Co-Mentor: Ziam Khan
School: Graduated Urbana High School and planning to attend the University of Southern California with a major in computer science
About Me: I have always had an interest in STEM subjects, especially biology and computer science. I explored these two fields at school but also through extracurriculars, such as through science competitions like Science Olympiad. In the future, I am looking forward to combining these two interests and potentially pursuing a career in computational biology.
Internship Project: Image Segmentation of Ciliogenesis. We used the computer software Dragonfly ORS to segment cell structures in datasets consisting of electron microscopy images. These structures included the centriole, Golgi, distal appendages, vesicles, etc. We later presented our work using Illustrator files to our mentor and our postbaccalaureate, who would then use the data to do further analysis regarding the ciliogenesis process.
Takeaways: I learned a lot from an academic standpoint, especially the process of ciliogenesis and how it potentially relates to the development of certain cancers. I also learned a lot about myself, including that I’m someone who enjoys reading scientific articles and asking questions. Additionally, I learned more about the various interdisciplinary career paths available to me in the future.
Program/Laboratory: NCI Cancer and Developmental Biology Laboratory, Sphingolipid & Phospholipid Signaling Section
Mentor: Jairaj K. Acharya, MBBS, Ph.D.
Co-Mentor: Jacob Tantalla
School: Graduated Governor Thomas Johnson High School and planning to attend Pennsylvania State University, University Park, with a major in the accelerated pre-medical BS/MD program
About Me: I am passionate about pursuing healthcare and continuing research. As for personal hobbies, I enjoy cooking and writing.
Internship Project: The Serinc Gene in Drosophila using CRISPR-Cas9 Technology.
We generated a mutant for Serinc that has the entire gene deleted, using CRISPR-Cas9 technology. To accomplish this, we designed four gRNAs that targeted the opposite strands at the two ends of the gene encoding for Serinc to delete most of the gene’s coding sequence. Once sequencing is complete, the transgenic flies will be made outside of the laboratory. In a separate set of genetic crosses, the transgenic flies bearing the gRNAs will be crossed to flies expressing the Cas9 gene. The flies generated from this cross will have potential mutants with deletions. Stocks of these flies will be established and tested for confirmation of mutants.
Takeaways: Being in the WHK program grew my interest in research. I learned various laboratory techniques, including gel electrophoresis, PCR, qPCR, bacterial transformation through electroporation, Drosophila care, RNA extraction, and more. Along with this, I gained an understanding of how research is conducted. This involved me taking responsibility and setting my own timeline for projects, which also helped me develop my problem-solving skills.
Program/Laboratory: NCI, Cancer and Developmental Biology Laboratory, Developmental Signal Transduction Section
Mentor: Jaeho Yoon, Ph.D.
Co-Mentor: Kenan Murray, B.A.
School: Graduated Westminster High School and planning to attend the University of Maryland, College Park, with a double major in biochemistry and sociology
About Me: I love biology and chemistry and wanted to see it applied outside the classroom. I intend to pursue research-based fields in public health to unite my interests in bench-side research with my concern for medical equity. In my free time, I enjoy reading, writing, and going to concerts with my friends.
Internship Project: Screening of Binding Partners of Dishevelled C-terminus. Through a mass-spectrometry analysis, we found that Kizuna, a protein whose mutations are implicated in retinal deformities, was found to be a binding partner of the disheveled C-terminus.
Takeaways: I learned how valuable it is to be curious and to be constantly asking questions in new environments. This helped me to learn and grow through my internship.
Best wishes to the 2023 class of WHK interns!
Karolina Wilk is a science communications and training specialist [ad hoc] in Scientific Publications, Graphics & Media (SPGM), where she writes for NCI at Frederick and Frederick National Laboratory’s news outlets; manages the production of SPGM communications trainings; and edits scientific manuscripts, corporate documentation, and other writing. SPGM is the facilities’ creative services department and hub for editing, illustration, graphic design, formatting, and multimedia training and support.