Twenty-one high school and undergraduate students participated in summer research fellowships at the MDI Biological Laboratory this summer. Here, six summer research fellows share their observations on what the experience has meant to them.
Charlotte Collins, 17
North Yarmouth Academy, Yarmouth, Maine, rising high school senior
Charlotte Collins remembers her first scientific experiment, which took place when she was five or six. Finding a dead minnow, she decided to dissect it. She still remembers her wonder at finding what she now knows was the swim bladder in the fish’s body cavity. “Oh my God, this is how it stays afloat,” she remembers thinking upon discovering the tiny pouch of air. The discovery, she says, allowed her to fill in a piece of the puzzle of how life works. Ever since, she has been trying to fill in the other pieces. “My goal is to understand the full picture, to understand how everything fits together,” she says. “I know that sounds ambitious, but it’s what drives me. If I’m interested in something, I want to figure it out it works.”
Her experience as a summer fellow at the MDI Biological Laboratory studying the molecular and genetic pathways for regeneration in the laboratory of Voot P. Yin, Ph.D., has reinforced her fascination with discovery. “I’m learning things no one else has learned before, like how a particular gene functions in the regeneration of the zebrafish tailfin, which is knowledge we can use to learn how to regenerate limbs in humans,” she says. “It’s very cool that I can be a part of that as a 17-year-old.” Her attraction to science stems in part from the sheer scope of knowledge that has yet to be discovered. “There’s so much of science we still don’t understand,” she says. “We already know a lot about, for instance, writing or history, but in science there’s all of life to explore.”
One of the best parts of Collins’ experience has been the opportunity to learn firsthand about their work from MDI Biological Laboratory scientists, including her mentor, Yin, as well as other faculty members. “Because the laboratory is such a tight-knit community, you’re able as a summer fellow to work directly with the all the scientists, which wouldn’t happen at a larger institution,” she says. “It’s this opportunity to share knowledge that makes the summer fellowship experience here so unique.”
Cameron Fudge, 22
Southern Maine Community College, rising junior; will attend University of Maine, Orono, in the fall
Cameron Fudge enlisted in the U.S. military when he was 17 upon his graduation from Hall-Dale High School in Farmingdale, Maine. His goal was to “gain some life experience and some education and to grow up a little.” He did all that — plus he gained a vocation. Because he didn’t quality for positions requiring security clearance due to his dual citizenship (he is a Nova Scotia native), he chose to serve as a hospital corpsman at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas, one of the U.S. military’s premier medical institutions. What impressed him most about his work as an operating room medic was the surgeons’ ability to handle life or death situations with calm expertise. He decided he wanted to achieve a similar level of mastery in his chosen field. “The military was a gateway for me,” he says. “It got me thinking that I wanted to do something more than set up IV lines.” That “something more” was a career in scientific research: as a hospital corpsman, he says, he had never been content with merely administering diagnostic tests: he wanted to understand how they worked.
Fudge’s introduction to scientific research came in the form of a one-week INBRE course for Southern Maine Community College students at the MDI Biological Laboratory earlier this year. INBRE is a statewide network of 13 Maine education and research institutions that provides biomedical training for Maine students. The course whetted his appetite for more. In his return engagement as a summer fellow in the laboratory of Voot P. Yin, Ph.D., he is studying the genetic signaling pathways that regulate tailfin regeneration in the zebrafish. The ultimate aim of Yin’s research is to identify therapies to reawaken the dormant genetic pathways for regeneration in humans. The opportunity to interact on a one-on-one basis with Yin and other MDI Biological Laboratory scientists has given Fudge an insider’s perspective on a career in research science. “It’s impossible to know a lot of what I’ve learned unless you’ve had the opportunity to speak to someone who’s been there and done it,” he says. He will be studying biochemistry at the University of Maine in the fall with an eye toward a career in scientific research. Beyond that, he’s not making any decisions. “I don’t want to limit myself,” he says. “There are too many possibilities.”
Stephan Jackson, 22
University of Maine, Orono, rising “super senior”
Stephan Jackson would like to move beyond medicine’s reliance on traditional therapies such as pharmaceuticals and surgery to study how health is influenced by physical forces. “These forces can have profound effects,” he says, citing studies demonstrating that regeneration can be stimulated in animal models by electromagnetic impulses. He is planning to pursue a career in bioengineering, which draws on knowledge from a range of disciplines. “Nature doesn’t divide what’s going on into biology, chemistry and physics — it’s all related,” he observes. “If you consider a problem from the multidisciplinary perspective, you have a much better idea of what’s going on.” His ultimate goal is to advance medicine through the development of innovative technologies. His interest in a range of scientific disciplines led to his participation last spring in a course at the MDI Biological Laboratory called “Bridging Disciplines: Navigating 21st Century Careers in Biomedical Science.” The goal of the course was to explore the interfaces among disciplines where innovation often takes place. The course struck a nerve with Jackson. “It was fundamental to where I am now,” he says. “It was exactly what I needed at the time I needed it.”
The “Bridging Disciplines” experience prompted Jackson to return to the MDI Biological Laboratory as a summer fellow. His research in the laboratory of Vicki P. Losick, Ph.D., on the molecular signals that regulate mechanical forces in the tissue repair process dovetails with his multidisciplinary interests. The research could lead to new therapies to promote wound healing in humans. The experience has given him new insight into the benefits of the fruit fly as a research model, including the fact that, as one of the most established animal models in biomedical research, a sophisticated array of tools has been developed to work with it. Though his summer fellowship has piqued his interest in regenerative medicine, Jackson isn’t sure yet what form his career will take, except that it will lie at the intersection of biology and physics. He is pursuing a double major in biochemistry and molecular and cellular biology, with a minor in physics. After completing his undergraduate studies, he plans to work in a research laboratory before attending graduate school. “At this point, experience is what I want the most,” he says.
Sarah Ann King, 21
Purchase College, State University of New York, Purchase, N.Y., rising senior
Sarah Ann King owes her decision to pursue a career in regenerative medicine to former vice president, Dick Cheney. Well, not exactly. But the publicity about Cheney’s heart transplant was one of the factors that got her thinking about the need, cost, challenges and ethical issues surrounding organ transplants, and — most significantly in terms of her career choice — how the ability to regenerate organs could benefit the health and well being of millions of patients worldwide. “The ability to make artificial organs would be “a gigantic paradigm shift,” she observes, allowing patients to receive artificial organs immediately instead of waiting years for donated organs. She also notes that artificial organs would eliminate illegal trafficking in human organs. An added incentive of a career in regenerative medicine for King, an animal lover, is the prospect of creating “organoids” or miniature “organs in a dish.” Though she acknowledges that animal models serve an important function in medical research, she is intrigued by the prospect that they may one day be replaced by artificial human tissue.
King, a student at Purchase College, part of the State University of New York (SUNY) system, learned about the summer fellowship program from Education Director Jane Disney, Ph.D. at the 2016 Annual Biomedical Conference for Minority Students. She was attracted to the opportunity by the laboratory’s focus on regenerative medicine. Her summer experience has reinforced her decision to pursue a doctorate in biology with the goal of becoming a research scientist, an educator or both. In addition to laboratory experience, King has benefitted from conversations with scientists such as her mentor, visiting scientist Robert Morris, Ph.D., who have shared the realities of a career in science and offered guidance on how to go about pursuing her career goals. Morris, for instance, hasn’t been afraid to give advice, which she says, “is important for someone in my position who doesn’t have a lot of exposure to what it’s like to work in a research setting.” She also appreciates that fact that he hasn’t “sugarcoated” the downside of a career in scientific research. “Not only do you need to know how to achieve your goals,” she says. “You also need to know if you will be happy when you do.”
Luna Soley, 17
Waynflete School, Portland, rising senior
Luna Soley says her summer experience as a research fellow has been one of the best of her life.” “I’ve enjoyed myself at the MDI Biological Laboratory immensely,” she says. “I’m really grateful to the people who have helped make that happen for me.”
What’s made her summer so special are the fascinating science, the friendships she has forged and the exposure to intellectually curious people. “It’s the people as much or more than the science that have shaped my experience here,” she says. “The science of human relationships has been as captivating as the work in the laboratory.” It isn’t that she’s giving short shrift to science — after studying the methodologies of histology with visiting scientist Bram Lutton, Ph.D., she’s delving into bioinformatics with visiting scientist Andrea R. Tilden, Ph.D. — it’s that there’s little that doesn’t qualify as fodder for her insatiable curiosity. In addition to people and science, this includes literature, philosophy, nature, physics and cosmology. “There are way too many things I want to study,” she says. “I have a hard time narrowing it down.”
Her wide-ranging interests are steering Soley toward Brown University, where, rather than choosing a major, students craft a “concentration” that becomes the focal point of their educations. Brown also offers the state-of-the-art laboratory infrastructure that will allow Soley to pursue her interests in science. If she were to narrow those interests down, they would lie at either end of the continuum between the practical and the abstract: she enjoys the hands-on laboratory work, but she also enjoys the big ideas. Since laboratory know-how is often a prerequisite to proving — or disproving — the big ideas, she acknowledges that this is a good place for a future scientist to be. “You have to adhere to process to mitigate error and ensure that your results are reproducible,” she says, quoting her mentor, Lutton. “But you also need creativity to generate a good hypothesis.” Though she isn’t sure yet what direction her career will take, she is sure she wants to be the “dumbest person in the room.” “I like being surrounded by quirky, intellectual, creative people,” she says. “I thrive in a place where I’m struggling to understand.” A better way to put that might be that she likes being the person in the room who is the most eager to learn.
Samantha White, 31
Southern Maine Community College, South Portland, Maine
If a liberal dose of life experience makes for a well-rounded scientist, Samantha White has the qualifications.
Since earning a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from a small college in Iowa, she has, in no special order, managed a coffee shop; backpacked across the country; traveled the world; taught English as a second language; prop-styled music videos; taught sea kayaking, winter mountaineering, and outdoor leadership; and worked as a wilderness EMT. Though she had already been thinking about going back to school to study science, it was the satisfaction of teaching science as an outdoor educator that prompted her to enroll at Southern Maine Community College to fill in the gaps in her science education. After fulfilling her science prerequisites next year, she plans to pursue graduate study in infectious diseases, a field with a huge potential public health benefit. Though she is fascinated by scientific inquiry, White initially thought she would pursue medicine rather than research because of her perception of research as isolating and monotonous. But her “litmus test” as a summer fellow has demonstrated that this isn’t necessarily the case. “I couldn’t spend all day, every day at a microscope,” she says. “But what I’m doing is incredibly diverse: each activity involves wildly differing skills and challenges.” The collaboration with other scientists has also provided more opportunity for social interaction than she anticipated. “The experience has given me confidence that research is the right choice,” she says. “This is something I could see myself doing for a long time and finding meaning in it.”
White is working in the laboratory of James Godwin, Ph.D., on a model for testing the role of macrophages — white blood cells that are part of the immune system — in injury resolution in the axolotl, a Mexican salamander with amazing regenerative abilities. “You have to examine your defeats — look at what went right, what went wrong — and celebrate the small victories, but there’s an amazing sense of ownership in creating a new tool for research,” she observes, adding that the cellular and molecular science has “blown her mind.” Does she have any regrets about her “kaleidoscopic” work history, which is responsible for her late start? “I’ve had a stamp placed on me — non-traditional student — which translates to ‘old’,” she says. “But I wouldn’t have had it any other way.”