With much pride and in awe of this fine example of a Trinity scientist, I am pleased to turn over my blog today to Senior Charlene Valdez ’17, one of our great Clare Boothe Luce Scholars, who spent the summer as an Amgen Scholar at MIT (the Massachusetts Institute of Technology). Congratulations, Charlene!
Read Charlene’s essay on her summer experience below, and view her powerpoint presentation here: Charlene Valdez at MIT Summer 2016
Research Experience at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology
In the summer of 2016, I participated in the Amgen Scholars Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology(MIT). During the 8-week program, I was granted the opportunity to work under Dr. Matthew Vander Heiden in a Cancer Metabolism lab under the department of Biology. We were primarily interested in understanding the interactions between pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma(PDAC) tumor cells and pancreatic stellate cells (PSCs), an endogenous fibroblast that is present within the stroma. A primary literature suggests that PSCs can act as an immunobarrier to PDAC tumor cells, thus preventing the entry of chemotherapeutics which hinder cancer cell proliferation.
We hypothesized that the development of PDAC organoid co-cultures with primary PSCs, could provide us with insight on metabolites that may be secreted between two cell types. In order to facilitate these studies, we used a PDAC tumor mouse model containing Kras and p53 mutations to isolate tumor organoids. Kras is generally known as a cancer causing gene, or oncogene, and p53 is a protein that can assist with tumor suppression. In the final analysis, our results showed that PDAC tumor organoids showed increase in growth in cocultures with PSCs, and when exposed to metabolites such as alanine and pyruvate in separate conditions. Through this project, I gained greater interest in the field of molecular biology as it relates to the development of cancer and its connection to metabolic processes. Using similar techniques, I believe that I can enter my next biomedical research lab with confidence in developing my own independent research project.
My experiences in the Vander Heiden lab also helped to build upon my skills as an undergraduate researcher, and further prepared me for my pursuits of a Ph.D. post-graduation. I was fortunate enough to build close relationships with my fellow peers at Amgen, members of the Vander Heiden lab, and fellow researching working in the David H. Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research. Working under the supervision of Dr. Allison Lau, a post doc in the lab, I truly felt like I was a permanent member of the lab, due to the warm nature of my research mentor along with my PI, and fellow lab colleagues. Although I entered the lab feeling somewhat insecure of my scientific abilities, I was constantly reminded by my PI and Dr. Lau of my unique skills and abilities which allowed me to carry out an independent research project. I was also greatly assisted during my search of potential graduate schools, and was granted the opportunity to have one-on-one sessions with fellow faculty, graduate students, and former lab members about the Biology Ph.D. program at MIT.
Although my departure from the lab was bittersweet, I believe that I will always maintain contact with Dr. Vander Heiden, Dr. Lau, and others I’ve met during my Amgen experience. Through Amgen, I was granted the opportunity to meet research scientists who are leading their fields, and was able to participate in networking activities both on campus and at the 2016 Amgen Scholars Symposium. The inclusivity of the Amgen program is admirable and I highly recommend it for students who are interested in continuing their careers in science. Ultimately, the summer I spent at MIT was incredibly rewarding, and I look forward to sharing the scientific knowledge I’ve gained with my colleagues at Trinity.
Definition for terms above:
Pancreatic Ductal Adenocarcinoma – Pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma (PDAC) is a highly lethal form of pancreatic cancer with limited treatment options .
Organoid – Organoid cultures, a type of 3D culture system, contain organ-like units capable of self-organization, mimicking the organ environment .
Pancreatic Stellate Cell – a resident fibroblast population in the pancreas which secretes fibers into the stroma .
 Rahib, L. et al. (2015). Projecting cancer incidence and deaths to 2030: the unexpected burden of thyroid, liver, and pancreas cancers in the United States. Cancer Res. 74, 2913-2921.
 Ryan, D. P. et al. (2014). Pancreatic adenocarcinoma. N. Engl. J. Med. 371, 1039-1049.
 Gurski, L.A. et al. (2010). 3D matrices for anti-cancer drug testing and development. Oncol. Issues 25, 20-25.
 Phillips, P. (2012). Chapter 3: Pancreatic stellate cells and fibrosis. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK98937/