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Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine
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Getting closer to science: Danna Pichay's SciHigh Experience

Taking my Science Knowledge to New Heights 

By: Danna Pichay

My interest in the biological sciences ignited when I completed biology and one semester of anatomy and physiology during my freshman year. My teacher’s descriptive lectures were comprehensive, informative, and genuinely enjoyable. Learning a basic overview of biology and the human body beforehand gave me the confidence to apply for the SciHigh Program. More than six weeks have passed since the launch of my internship, and I have learned about the many intricacies of the research process. This program has intensified my relationship with science and taken my knowledge of biology to new heights.

Getting to the Bench

During the first week of my internship I met with my mentors, Dr. Gal Finer and Xiangmin Zhao. Dr. Finer is the Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at the Feinberg School of Medicine and an attending physician at the nearby Lurie Children’s Hospital. She works closely with Dr. Susan Quaggin, the Chief of Nephrology and Hypertension in the Department of Medicine. Xiangmin, Dr. Finer’s postdoctoral scholar, mostly works in the lab. He manages the cages of transgenic mice, optimizes protocols for experiments, and helps me with basic lab techniques.

My research with my mentors focuses on the pathophysiology of congenital anomalies of the kidney and urinary tract. These abnormalities are one of the major causes of chronic kidney disease in young individuals. The genetics of these anomalies almost always involves genes concerned with kidney development. One transcription factor, Tcf21, is highly expressed in nephron progenitor cells and mature podocytes. In mice, the loss of Tcf21 results in severe congenital deformities of the kidneys and urinary tract. Dr. Finer has recently applied for a grant for the study, so the project is in its early stages. Right now, we are performing polymerase chain reaction procedures, genotyping the transgenic mice, and optimizing the staining protocol for the harvested mouse kidneys. The mouse models that will be used to study the relationship between the lack of Tcf21 expression and congenital anomalies of the kidney and urinary tract are the Six2Cre_Tcf21 model and the FoxD1Cre_Tcf21 model. The Six2Cre_Tcf21 model lacks Tcf21 expression in the cap mesenchyme. In the FoxD1Cre_Tcf21 model, Tcf21 expression is lacking in the renal stroma. Ultimately, the aims of this study are to evaluate the role of Tcf21 and to determine if Tcf21 is required in the differentiation cascade of nephron progenitor cells.

Beyond the Bench

Along with working in the lab, I attend seminar meetings every Tuesday. The purposes of these classes are to develop or refine scientific skills, improve scientific writing, and listen to researchers discuss their fields of study. One distinct orator, Dr. LaBella, spoke about her work in sports medicine. She stated that she works with patients that vary from elementary students to recent college graduates. Since she adored gymnastics in high school, she feels as if she has a deeper understanding of her athletic patients. She frequently attends her patients’ sports matches and communicates with coaches about suggested exercises and recent scientific publications that could be of benefit. Furthermore, she is aware athletes have a desire to play as soon as possible. As long as the player’s wounds have healed and the individual is not at a higher risk for injury, Dr. LaBella authorizes the person to play. General physicians may not be aware of the patient’s wants and are apprehensive of allowing playtime shortly after injury. This can unnecessarily increase recovery time and dampen the patient’s mood. Dr. LaBella’s lecture taught me that medical personnel should be mindful of the patient’s desires and that less interference and recovery time can be more valuable overall. I will be sure to apply this when I pursue medicine in the future.

A healthy workplace is essential for productivity. I am grateful that the members of Dr. Quaggin’s lab are enthusiastic about their research. Everyone is willing to assist their colleagues, whether it’s with preparing agarose gel for gel electrophoresis or finding a substance that can reduce the presence of stained erythrocytes on the backgrounds of tissue slides. Outside of the lab, research is not the only topic on my coworkers’ minds. Apart from talking about obstacles in protocols and supplies that need to be restocked, they discuss their experiences in medical school, their professions before working at Northwestern University, current issues, and upcoming birthdays. On the second day of my internship, we celebrated the birthdays of two lab employees with cupcakes! Every member is a significant contributor in the lab.

Oddly enough, one of my favorite parts of this experience is the lunch breaks. Although I appreciate the plethora of food options available on the Chicago campus, the people I see while purchasing lunch at Northwestern Memorial Hospital are a marvelous sight. Every day, I see a mixture of children, elders, healthy visitors, and frail patients. I realize the impact I’m making through my internship. Every protocol I follow eventually contributes to the body of scientific knowledge. Kidney research has a profound connection to me because my aunt is at a high risk for kidney disease. My mother’s relatives are also prone to being diagnosed with kidney failure. Each time I walk into the hospital, I am reminded of one of the ultimate goals of research: to improve medical care for the patient.

Participating in the NUGoKidney SciHigh Summer Program has been incredibly thought-provoking. This internship will definitely influence my future career decisions. Thanks to this experience, I am strongly considering working in biomedical research. I recommend this program to anyone who loves learning and has a passion for science!

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