NIH Summer Internship Reflection

This summer, I received STEP funding to participate in the NIH’s summer internship program at their main research campus in Bethesda, Maryland. I studied drug response in rhabdomyosarcoma under Dr. Frederic Barr in the National Cancer Institute.

I have been in a research lab for many years at OSU, where I study tRNA biology in yeast. I have come to see the value of basic research in scientific discovery. At the NIH, I was able to participate in translational research, where I was closer to seeing the medical outcomes associated with my field of work. This was my first time working with human tumor cell lines, and I realized how differently they had to be treated. I was able to better appreciate the flow of knowledge, from genetic manipulations only easily performed on basic living organisms, to application in in vitro human studies.

One thing I found so striking about the NIH was the facility’s design. I was working in the clinical center, a building that was half-hospital, half-research labs. My lab belonged to the department of pathology, and one afternoon, the staff took us on a tour of the pathology facilities. I discovered that the autopsy and biopsy rooms were literally down the hall from where I was doing my research. I was amazed at how well the NIH was able to integrate the bench-to-bedside approach.

I definitely used to think that basic research was less important that medical research, and I found it frustrating that the research I was doing at OSU didn’t have a direct application to human studies. However, while I was working with human cell lines at the NIH, I realized that many of the experiments we run in my lab at OSU are impossible to perform on human cells, because their complexities don’t allow for many manipulations. I now understand the unique genetic control we have over simple organisms like yeast, and how discoveries found on the more basic level are the building blocks to understanding human diseases.

I was particularly struck by the difference in time length in procedures. Some of the experiments I was doing at the NIH were the same as the ones I do at OSU, but since I was working with a different species, they took much longer. For example, a growth curve would that used to take me 12 hours would now take me 10 days. I think I always glorified translational research without realizing that it took so much more work than basic research. Now I understand why so many PIs choose to stick with their model organisms!

I once thought that I wanted to do research at the NIH clinical center, so I was very excited to be spending the summer there. However, I realized that I was as interested in translational research as I thought I would be, and I discovered I did not like the federal government’s environment as much as I enjoyed academia. While I am still very excited to do research in my future, I would like to continue to work in an academic setting, where I would be able to mentor more students rather than work with full-time research scientists.