STEP Undergraduate Research Experience – Multiple Myeloma and Natural Killer Cells

What?

This past semester, I was able to use STEP funds to make progress on a research experience. I work in one of the cancer labs in the James Comprehensive Cancer Center. I specifically study Multiple Myeloma (MM), a type of blood cancer, as well as the Natural Killer (NK) Cell, a type of immune cell in our bodies. The main goal of the project was to study how an anti-myeloma drug affects the interaction between the MM and NK cells.

Lab reagents can cost easily hundreds to thousands of dollars. With the money that the STEP program provided, I was able to get enough research materials to see how the drugs affect NK cells. Since my research advisor, Dr. Don Benson, is an M.D. Ph.D., I was able to get patient blood samples from MM patients in his clinic. Using techniques I learned over the semester, I was able to pull out NK cells (and a few other immune cells) out of the blood. After extracting the NK cells, I maintained them in culture, and was able to give them the drug at various doses for various time points. These sorts of experiments allowed me to ask further questions such as “how much drug can I administer and still keep my cells alive?” or “what kinds of proteins are released by the cell when the drug is administered?”.

Many of these questions are still being answered. It’s impossible to learn everything in this field; however, my goal for the time being is to continue to seek answers and eventually publish my findings.

 

So What?

I felt as though my STEP research experience was much different than the typical research experience. I actually started during the Summer of 2014. After three months of working on an entirely different project, our lab came to the conclusion that the project was not viable. There was even a second failed attempt at a project before I started working on the current work. I felt as though I had wasted both time and money, however this was far from the truth. The time I had spent culturing cells, running experiments, and failing was not meaningless. Over the summer I began to understand how researchers go about finding answers to their questions. I was able to improve my skills designing experiments, as well as my basic lab techniques.

Around September, I had finally chosen my current project. I guess third time is the charm! After extending my STEP experience, I began to work on the project right away. It does not take long to figure out that in scientific research, 99% of your theories are bound to fail. Even though that may seem discouraging, it is the 1% that makes all the difference in the long run. Throughout the past year, I have also been able to get more involved in understanding Multiple Myeloma.

A few friends and I got together and created the first Multiple Myeloma awareness group on campus, and we are currently working with an MM awareness organization as well as Team Buckeye to put on events to spread the word on the disease. This would have never happened had it been for my research experience, so I am really glad that I was able to benefit from the experience both inside and outside the lab despite all the setbacks I faced.

 

Now What?

Working directly with patient samples, drugs, and cancers was really amazing, but it was actually the writing part of my experience that was the most beneficial of all. After I had preformed preliminary experiments with STEP funding, I was able to get a deeper understanding of the potential behind my project. I decided that during the start of the Spring Semester, I would apply for as many grants and scholarships as I could.

During the months of January and February, I wrote numerous drafts of all sorts of formats on project proposals to get more funding. The trickiest part is to explain all the science in layman’s terms such that someone with most basic understanding of science could grasp the significance of the project. I believe that this was the most significant part of the experience, because it allowed me to develop skills in communication that I definitely lacked before.

So far, including STEP, I have been able to get about $9,000 in funding and research scholarships, I fully intend to independently to try to pay for my own project independent of lab grants. I have also had the opportunity to present at the Denman Undergraduate Research Forum, and I hope to present my research some more next Autumn after I gain more data. This project will go into my honors thesis, but ultimately, I hope I can get a research publication out of it.

I aspire to go into medicine, and while I am not exactly decided on whether I want to focus on academic or clinical side, the skills I have learned – persistence and effective communication – will be crucial in any area of medicine.

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