Etiology of Malignant Melanoma

Coming into my Undergraduate career as a freshman I didn’t have a clear plan or idea of what I wanted to do after graduation. All I knew is that I was aiming for the Healthcare field, and at the very least I knew I needed to incorporate biological sciences into my future.

First semester of freshman year I took a one-credit hour class called Research and Career Opportunities. It was a random course that I chose to fill out my schedule and it was taught by Dr. Anita Hopper, the chairwoman of the Department of Molecular Genetics at the time. Her class opened my eyes to the diversity of career paths which involve science. Seeking guidance in deciding which path to pursue, I went to Dr. Hopper’s office hours a couple of times.

Dr. Hopper suggested that I try my hand at laboratory-based research by securing a student position at the university. Her knowledge of the staff of the department helped me to select a couple of faculty members who would be interested in mentoring an undergraduate researcher. After perfecting my resume, sending a handful of emails and completing an interview, I began working in the lab of Dr. Christin Burd in January of 2013.

After months of basic training and becoming comfortable in the lab, Dr. Burd finally felt I was ready to undertake my own project in October of 2013. My project would use mice to investigate the role that genetics and UV radiation have in the development of malignant melanoma. Melanoma accounts for roughly 75% of deaths by skin-related cancers, and its occurrence has been increasing steadily for many decades. Scientists have established an undisputed correlation between UV light exposure and melanoma incidence, but have yet to decipher the direct causal relationship.

I spent the remainder of the 2013-2014 school year working hard on my project. I was in the mouse room every day, becoming more independent by the week. I devoted all of the time and energy to my project that I could, and as the semester wore on, summer loomed. I did not have the money to stay in Columbus and continue my work and Dr. Burd could not afford to pay me. What would become of my beloved project?  The mice could not simply be abandoned—if I left for the summer, my project would be reassigned to another researcher and I would have little to nothing to show for my labors.

Fortunately for me, STEP was able to facilitate a summer undergraduate research  opportunity for me in Dr. Burd’s lab. Not only would I be able to continue my project, but I would be able to make leaps and bounds of progress in my work.

Spending the summer in Columbus performing research was a dream come true. I worked well over 40 hours a week but I loved every minute of it. I met regularly with Dr. Burd to discuss my project and I immersed myself completely in a research environment. I also began meeting with other faculty members studying similar things, both networking and getting feedback from them about my results as well as how to proceed in my project. I learned a multitude of new lab techniques that I never would have been able to utilize on my own without continuing on in the summer. I learned how to use immunohistochemistry to stain slides, how to use imaging software to quantify microscope pictures, how to create a genome library and much more. For me, my STEP experience was the opportunity of a lifetime to explore a future career option and to allow me to learn a variety of useful skills.

My STEP Experience allowed me to be immersed in the research field and helped me to decide what it was I wanted to do with my life. If I doubted it before, I now know that I want to end up in medical academia. It also gave me many networking connections that will benefit me as I continue on to higher education.

After almost two years in the lab, I am still infatuated with the work I do every day. Without knowing anything about research before beginning in Dr. Burd’s lab, I couldn’t have had any idea that it was something I would want to be involved with for the rest of my life. Having completed my STEP Experience helped steer me towards my future career, provided me the opportunity to do meaningful work and laid invaluable groundwork for my future success as a medical researcher.

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