Undergraduate Research STEP Reflection

Hi, my name is Avni Patel, and my STEP project was an Undergraduate Research Project that took place in the Precision Cancer Medicine Lab housed in the Comprehensive Cancer Center at the James Cancer Hospital under the guidance of Dr. Sameek Roychowdhury and Dr. Melanie Krook. My independent project focused on comprehensively characterizing the role of novel FGFR2 gene alterations and how they contribute to the metastatic development of cholangiocarcinoma in patients. 

When I applied to college, I was very adamant about pursuing a pre-medical path, not even having considered all of the other ways in which I could contribute to the field of medicine without being a physician. My first year of my undergraduate career was heavily focused on completing rigorous scientific coursework in biology, chemistry, sociology, etc. As it happens to be, one of the unspoken requirements of being a strong medical school applicant is participating in biomedical research. Thus, at the conclusion of my freshman year of college, I joined the Precision Cancer Medicine lab, and I immediately fell in love with research and everything it had to offer. As I became more proficient in lab techniques and became more comfortable in my lab environment, the idea of pursuing a graduate degree and becoming a cancer biology researcher became an even more promising option.

My STEP project allowed me to fully immerse myself in my own independent research project, truly learning what it means to answer a scientific question from beginning to end. My desire to pursue a career in cancer biology research has become so much more amplified. Importantly, I have realized how important it is to pursue your undergraduate career with an open mind – Ohio State has a multitude of opportunities to offer, and it is so vital to fully explore those options in order to learn what it is that you truly want to do in your professional career. 

One of the most pivotal individuals during my research experience was Dr. Melanie Krook, a research scientist in the Roychowdhury lab. At the start of my research career, Dr. Krook was a postdoctoral fellow who had taken the lead on multiple projects that aim to better understand the FGFR gene and the manner in which the biology of altered FGFR genes plays a role in the development of aggressive cancers. Dr. Krook is easily the best mentor that I have ever had – she is kind, enthusiastic about science, and genuinely values my opinion as a budding scientist. One memorable instance I had was when I was learning how to take care of cells and perfecting my cell culture technique. Cells must be carefully treated and regularly taken care of in order to prevent mycoplasma, or bacterial contamination. Often times, it is difficult to identify the presence of bacterial contamination because cells that require lots of nutrients will turn the solution yellow, just as contamination will. When I initially saw my plates, I saw no reason for concern because I was unable to identify the contamination, but Melanie saw it immediately. However, instead of reprimanding me, she viewed it as a learning experience and explained the science behind the contamination to me. She was aware that as an undergraduate researcher, my experience is limited, and I cannot be expected to be perfect. Thus, she taught me that mistakes are okay and that in science, they are going to occur way more frequently than successes are – and that’s okay. 

Additionally, the development of my own independent project allowed me to develop a vast skill set of lab techniques that will serve me well in my future research endeavors. From basic science techniques such as PCR, gel electrophoresis, bacterial transformation, Western blotting, and RNA extraction to cancer-specific techniques such as drug sensitivity assays, soft agar assays, and colony formation assays, my ability to perform experiments and adjust protocols as needed based on preliminary results has been heavily refined. As I apply to other labs during medical school and graduate school, my breadth of knowledge will make me a much more competitive applicant, and I am appreciative of that. 

Finally, I am very lucky that I joined a lab under Dr. Roychowdhury, who is an MD-PhD. This means that in conjunction with running a research lab, he also sees cancer patients in the clinic one day of the week. Because of this, our research is very multi-faceted: cases from patients in the clinic often inspire new research experiments and the development of new clinical trials. Also, the presence of a multidisciplinary lab containing a bioinformatics team, a clinical laboratory team, and a basic science research team allows for very complex, genomic experiments to take place, and the scope of what we are able to accomplish is much larger than that of simply a bioinformatics lab or simply a basic science lab. Thus, I have gained a much greater appreciation for physician-scientists and am heavily leaning towards applying to those dual-degree programs upon graduating.

As discussed previously, for as long as I have known, I have wanted to be a physician. As a student in the rigorous Biomedical Science major, I knew that undergraduate research was going to be a significant portion of my academic career. However, actually being such a collaborative, supportive lab environment was truly a blessing because many of my peers in my major do not speak as highly of their research experiences as I do. After having experienced the power of a good scientific research community, I am optimistic about immersing myself further in this career field and eventually fostering the same environment for undergraduates in my own cancer research laboratory.