For the first two years of my college experience I primarily focused my learning to the classroom, not seeking out opportunities to work in a research lab. At the end of the fall semester of my sophomore year, I changed my major to Biochemistry, where I was encouraged to work in the lab. With little exposure applying my knowledge of biochem to novel scientific research, I was eager to get started when the opportunity arose for me to spend the summer working in a lab at Stanford University. I worked as a research assistant in both the clinic and the laboratory of the Bone Marrow Transplant (BMT) department. My time at Stanford was split between the research in a laboratory setting using Protein Microarray technology to test the immune response of patients after a bone marrow transplant, and working in the hospital with the patients on the clinical trial. Being able to apply the scientific knowledge I had been working so hard to learn over the past two years in a setting that would have a direct impact on the wellbeing of patients battling cancer was an extremely motivating and gratifying experience.
The research focused on sex-mismatched hematopoietic cell transplants in patients with hematological malignancies such as leukemia or lymphoma. In a female to male transplant there is a higher remission of cancer and conversely a higher instance of Graft Versus Host Disease (GVHD). From an immunological standpoint, the reason for the greater remission is due to the female donor immune system being naïve to the Y chromosome. The new immune system of the donor that is now growing stronger in the host begins to recognize the Y chromosome encoded proteins as foreign, and develops an immune response as if it were fighting off an infection. The immune system will remain on “high alert” killing the cancer, while attacking the host. When the new immune system attacks the host it is called graft versus host disease.
Using a protein microarray and patients’ blood taken at 90 days, 180 days, 270 days, 1 year, 2 years, and 3 years we were able to watch the development of the new immune system. Using this data as a predictive model to know when the onset of GVHD may occur will help the doctors treating these patients to know when to give immunosuppressive drugs or increase the number of donor cells. Protein microarrays are a fairly new technology, which has not been perfected. A large part of my internship was investigating ways to account for variation in printing and processing.
My research over the summer was a stepping-stone to my current research in a lab at UMass Amherst, studying GVHD in mice, because I was familiar working in a research lab studying the same disease in humans. Working in the lab while taking classes gives the classroom based learning a real life connection that makes learning more exciting and motivates further research experiences.