• Myriam Ibarra ’19, Amey Duarte ’21, Kirhyn Stein ’20, and Phillip Keys ’20 spent the summer as interns at the Houston Methodist Research Institute.

I am a visiting summer undergraduate research fellow at the Houston Methodist Research Institute. I am working under Dr. Nhat-Tu Le, the principal investigator, in the cardiovascular regeneration division of research. I am also working with a postdoctoral fellow and a research assistant as well as three other summer interns.

This summer, I have been put in charge of human aortic endothelial cells and given the opportunity to manage them and design experiments using them in order to provide data for an upcoming grant proposal Dr. Le has been compiling data for. My day-to-day work consists of checking on the health of cells, running flow experiments, performing techniques such as western blots to determine the outcomes of results, and testing for significance by data analysis. One of my major goals was to elucidate the molecular pathways responsible for activating ERK5 transcriptional activity as caused by both steady laminar blood-vessel flow or disturbed turbulent vessel flow. Specifically, one of my project goals was to optimize the concentration of a kinase inhibitor. We later used this optimized concentration to run experiments to determine where exactly the pathway was halted in order to better understand the sequence and timing of events. I am now in the middle of using immunoprecipitation techniques to determine association patterns between molecules, which will tell us information from a different angle about the pathway we are interested in. 

I faced challenges moreso early on in learning procedures of new techniques and how to properly handle fragile viruses or antibodies. In addition, each intern was required to present their latest data on a weekly basis to the lab faculty and collaborators from M. D. Anderson. A second early challenge I overcame was performing data analysis and presenting it in a readable and understandable way.

I have had a great number of benefits and takeaways from this internship. I learned, through many conversations with Dr. Le, the amount of organization and budgeting that goes into running a professional research laboratory. To save on costs, Dr. Le does all of her budgeting on her own and is always in the middle of writing another grant proposal, regardless of whether she had just received a large grant. The reason, she explained to me, is because you may submit a handful of proposals to donors that may get rejected, and you still need to have funding in the meantime to do your experiments that will be incorporated in future grant proposals. In other words, it takes a professional level of organization to run a successful and efficient lab.

Dr. Le also modeled for me and my fellow interns what a great mentor looks like. She allowed us to run experiments that are worth approximately $500 and was slow to anger when we messed up a protocol or ran the machines wrong. She insisted that part of her funding was for intern development, which served much to our advantage as we were then able to come away with a better understanding of the science and a better handle of the techniques.

This internship has already affected the way I will approach my schooling. For one, as much as I enjoy working under Dr. Le and working with materials so precise and innovative, I have more confidence in my decision to pursue medical school after Southwestern University instead of a career in research. I also have a better appreciation for professional research and my research in the organic chemistry lab under Assistant Professor of Chemistry Michael Gesinski will be of better quality now after my experience. This internship will also strongly complement any further schooling efforts, such as graduate- or medical-school applications. Medical schools expect a substantial amount of research, and although I am already a member of Dr. Gesinski’s lab at Southwestern, it helps to have a diverse array of research disciplines.