The MDI Biological Laboratory’s Undergraduate Student Summer Fellowship Program gives students the opportunity to get off campus and work in laboratories to conduct genetic research with leaders in the field. Fellows this year included Jeremy “Heath” Fuqua ’18, Mamiko Yamazaki ’18, and Porcia Manandhar ’17.
The highly competitive program allows students to develop professional skill sets and foster connections within the scientific research community while taking part in hands-on, research training experiences within advanced laboratories.
Originally from Nepal, Manandhar was accepted into the fellowship program after applying to the Maine IDeA Network of Biomedical Research Excellence (INBRE) for a grant available to international students.
For Manandhar, the process was nothing new – she had been accepted into the program in 2015 as well, and spent her summer that year doing familiar work at the Jackson Laboratory. This year, however, a curveball was thrown at Manandhar, and she found herself instead staring at three computer screens, studying the genes of various creatures she’s never even heard of.
“I’m a biologist! Most biologists do not want to even go near computers – unless they’re working with Excel,” said Manandhar. “I’ve never done computer work – I’ve only really done biology work with rats and mice. This summer I didn’t touch a single rodent.”
Although Manandhar found this new research method challenging, she adjusted to the change quickly. Over the course of the program, she spent her time studying genes that may regenerate cells in a kidney and ultimately prevent kidney failure. In addition to learning about these important cells, which “work as coffee filters that get rid of the grounds and let the good stuff through”, she also found herself learning a lot about the value of modern technology.
“There are three million sequences in the bases of human genes – we just don’t have the time to go through them all,” she said. “These computer programs go through these genes and find a specific sequence in a matter of hours. You save so much time and money! Doing this work made me realize how important this technology truly is.”
“Controlling disease is more complex than just looking at numbers, because humans themselves are so complex” - Porcia Manandhar ’17.
Similar to her experience with the program, Manandhar has spent a lot of her time at COA exploring fields of study she previously knew nothing about. Traditionally trained in math and biology throughout middle and high school in Nepal, she came to COA focused on facts and numbers. Over time, she found herself unexpectedly interested in topics much more qualitative in structure.
“I first took a class on religion because my professor was like, ‘Porcia, you argue a lot about it,’” she said, laughing. “And then I got into anthropology, which was different for me. In math and science classes you learn the facts and that’s that – y is always after x. But in anthropology, there is no right answer. It’s an ongoing discussion.”
Manandhar’s eventual goal is to combine these two types of study together by going to medical school for epidemiology.
“I think interdisciplinary study is the way to get ahead of the game, or at least for the career I want to go into,” she said. “In epidemiology, you study disease biologically – you look at the numbers, observe how fast they’re rising, calculate how many people are infected in a certain amount of time. But controlling disease is also more complex than just looking at numbers, because humans themselves are so complex. There’s a huge cultural barrier, and just because a disease is prevented here doesn’t mean it will be prevented successfully somewhere else.”
Overall, Manandhar has really valued the interdisciplinary nature of COA, and where it’s taken her as a student and as a person.
“What’s nice about this school is being able to dive into something you’ve been interested in for a while,” she said. “I’ve explored so many disciplines here, and it’s been absolutely amazing.”
Mamiko Yamazaki ’18
Mamiko Yamazaki applied for the lab’s student program after taking a short course on molecular biology that was offered at COA over spring break 2016. She spent her summer testing human and zebrafish skin cells, and exploring the relationship between their epidermal growth receptors and the oxidation of hydrogen peroxide.
Through her research, Yamazaki learned how to utilize different research techniques, schedule different experiments, efficiently take notes, properly handle different samples and equipment, make an effective presentation in a public setting, and communicate in a proper manner. Most importantly, she learned a lot about herself and what she plans on pursuing.
“It was a really nice experience. The people in my lab were patient with my mistakes and always very supportive. I found myself enjoying studying biomedicine and doing hands-on experiments,” said Yamazaki. “However, I did not find this lifestyle very appealing. I would love to pursue biomedicine, but probably not as a full-time researcher.”
This isn’t the first time Yamazaki has learned something about her interests as a biology student. After coming to COA interested in studying molecular/cellular biology, marine biology, and ecology, she realized that field science isn’t for her.
“COA offers many hands-on classes that are really appealing – last summer, I actually took marine mammal biology and spent a month and a half on Mount Desert Rock,” said Yamazaki. “I’ve found during my time at COA, however, that I am better at molecular/cellular biology than field science. After my experience with this fellowship program, I’ve realized that I definitely feel more comfortable in the laboratory than I do in the field.”
Yamazaki plans on pursuing a M.D. and eventually a Ph.D. in a biomedical field after graduation, but in the meantime, she plans on also delving into her other interests during the rest of her time at COA. She’s a member of COA’s Council on Foreign Affairs, “generates new analysis on global affairs to confront the challenges of our time, and encourages diverse voices and new ideas on our campus, in our community, and on our planet.” She’s also interested in music, and last year performed a Japanese song alongside other Japanese students for the school’s community show.
“I’ve faced challenges here – COA’s, or even America’s, educational style is very different from what I have experienced in Japan, so learning here can be challenging, but in a really great way,” Yamazaki said. “The fact that COA is a school of human ecology also has challenged me because I’ve been forced to throw myself into fields that I’ve never previously felt comfortable with (such as the arts and human studies). But in the end this interdisciplinary nature has introduced me to a new academic world, and has really broadened my view on the world itself.”