Discovering Human Genetics to Help Treat Diseases

CPE college student, Berniece, was awarded a $4500 CPE internship stipend over the summer. The stipend is offered to a small group of college students who secure low or unpaid internships to cover living, travel, and school expenses while interning. We believe that internships and other research and job shadowing opportunities help students build skills and connections needed for their career after college. Read about Berniece’s summer internship experience below

For as long as I can remember, I have always been fascinated in understanding the human body. For this reason, I chose to pursue a B.S. degree in Biology because it would allow me to have basic understanding of various biological topics and to explore the different routes I could take for a career in science. One of my priorities this summer when looking for a research program was to find a lab that would allow me to continue to foster my growth and experience as a biomedical researcher.

UMBC’s Research Experience for Undergraduates Program was the ideal setting for me because I was intellectually challenged and encouraged to pursue scientific knowledge. I participated in a 10-week program in Dr. Michael Summers’ research lab in the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. I enjoyed working in the lab because it aligned with my research interests the most. Currently, human genetics fascinates me because I’ve come to discover the more we learn about genetics, the more we can help prevent and treat diseases and viruses. I specifically loved the lab’s methods of research training and its promotion of cultural diversity in the biomedical sciences.

My first week at work was very exciting but intimidating. I was nervous because I had never worked for a biochemistry lab. I knew if I wanted to keep up and understand the main ideas of the experiments of the lab, I would have to study outside of work on my own. This is one of the main reasons why I liked this internship. It took me outside of my comfort zone. During my first week, I shadowed the students who had already been working in the lab for some time. While shadowing, I took notes on key concepts, important methods of experiments, and learned where material were throughout the lab. Even though I didn’t know much during the first week, the postdoctoral researcher (post doc) I worked under gave me a few research papers and topics to read about on my own at home. I appreciated the fact that he took the time to explain things to me and wanted me to get the most out of my summer internship.

Over the course of ten weeks, I had to attend morning meetings every morning at 8:30 am. Next, I would run an experiment for most of the morning and afternoon. In the evening, my lab group met to go over important biochemistry topics relevant to our experiments or get to know each other. The beginning of the internship was very challenging for me because not only did I have to learn about the lab, my role in the lab, and what was being researched but I also had to present research within my second week of being there. Every group in the lab has to present the research of whichever post doc or graduate student they work under. My group was first. This was hard for me because I was still trying to adjust to a new setting.

I am very grateful for this opportunity because my summer research experience has prepared me for working in a lab this current semester. Over the summer, I have learned a lot of technical and basic lab skills. I learned how to use lab equipment that I’ve never used before such as the FPLC, microfluidizer, and more. These are all types of lab equipment that helps lyse cells or purify proteins. After a month of learning how to use the lab equipment and how to extract protein and RNA for the experiments, my post doc student assigned a project to me.

My lab focused on the replication cycle of the HIV-1 virus. My specific group researched the genome packaging step of the virus’ life cycle. The goal of my specific project was to test the molecular mechanism of an inhibitory compound that interferes with HIV-1’s selective genome packaging step. I mainly performed gel shift for the experiments because the working mechanism of the compound remains largely unknown and our aim was to gain a better understanding of the function of the compound. This work will contribute to the understanding of the working mechanism of the compound, which will potentially benefit the development of new therapeutics for HIV-1 infection. For the last day of the internship, I presented a poster for SURF or UMBC’s Summer Undergraduate Research Fest. I had never done a poster presentation at a conference before, so I was both nervous and excited. My supervisor taught me how to write a research abstract, how to make a research poster, and how to present my findings.

This experience has helped me to better understand the work and dedication that goes behind discovering new means of therapeutics and medicines for diseases. It is not an easy process. My contribution over the 10 weeks was only a tiny portion of the studies of HIV-1. Researchers go through years and years of trial and error experiments. I admired how ambitious my supervisor and his colleagues were. I think my experience this summer has helped me to grow as a person. I would recommend any student to intern over the summer.