The basic sciences at Washington University in St. Louis are tough. Pushing their way through the semester only to be hit by the final wave of exams right before the finish line, many students can emerge as warped, grimy, and alone as a wooden plank floating the big sea after an intense storm. I’ll admit, I’ve felt like this before. Floating along throughout the semester, my ship began to fail despite the safe shores of summer lying ahead. But those summer shores cannot be wasted if the voyage is to pick up again in the fall. With three months class-free, a motley of science majors have opportunities to watch the science they’ve seen on a myriad of PowerPoint slides unfold in real life. Through research opportunities in their respective fields, they have the chance to see why that semester-long voyage really was worth the struggle. This summer, my research experience at Midwestern University’s School of Osteopathic Medicine served as the unexpected island on which my weary boat could gain strength and momentum. Never thought of research, a very precise and often grueling area of science, could evoke such a realization? Neither had I. But here’s why you should appreciate research experiences for more than just what they can do for your resume.
At the Chicago College of Osteopathic Medicine at Midwestern University in Downers Grove, IL, I met Dr. Ira Sigar, a microbiologist/immunologist endeavoring to find the cure for cancer and certain sexually transmitted diseases. Over the summer, I worked alongside medical and dental students to test whether graviola, the fruit of the soursop tree found in Mexico, Cuba, and South America, has properties that can treat cancer. Though originally used in cultural recipes like “soursop punch,” over time graviola has been used in cancer prevention experimentation due to the presence of acetogenins in its fruit and skin. Acetogenins inhibit NADH oxidase, an enzyme involved in the aerobic metabolism of cancer cell membranes, and thus cause cancer cells to die.
To ensure that graviola only kills harmful cells, Dr. Sigar set up an experiment where cancer cell lines (including HeLa for cervical, and MCF-7 for breast, cancers) and healthy cells would undergo the same treatment. And this is where I and some African Green Monkey kidney cells come in.
The kidney cells would indicate if graviola works specifically against deleterious cells. It became my job to maintain this cell line; this included frequently changing the cell media to counting and transferring cells from their stock solution to treatment plates. On the plates, we tested various graviola dilutions and compared its effects to those of 60% ethanol.
Over the course of these last few months, we have fine-tuned our experiment while navigating past obstacles such as the influence of alcohol at various dilutions and the constant threat of contamination. The few weeks of research brought about changes crucial for the effectiveness of future experiments. In addition to these procedural changes, my time in the lab brought about changes in personal outlook, and really revamped that plank from its prior state of dilapidation.
While in this research assistant position, I found that though the exposure to science is vitally important, research offers other crucial life lessons that have the potential to transform students into the professionals that our world needs. Though as interns and volunteers we are only able to offer help here and there, we become part of the larger ultimate goal. In clinical research, this goal is to find the cure, the treatment, that started it all. In the medical field, this goal is to uphold the health of humanity. That is not something one person can do alone. Instead, each physician must strive to be their best, not the best, and provide the care they can to the little bit of humanity thrown their way. They must stay afloat in the big sea and through the intense storms because there is no telling what the hard work they put in will do for their slice of humanity. It seemed fitting to me that such an idea would strike me while I was sitting inside an osteopathic institution focused on the holistic approach of medicine.
There is much for us science degree candidates to learn. Research takes what is to be learned beyond the page; in the process, one has the opportunity to make personally formative connections. That summer research position just might teach the values of patience, hard work, and perspective on your future place in the professional world. It just might show you that though you might be a weary ship in a big, often stormy, sea, the perseverance and dedication you put in to make small waves may not be felt by all, but to some might feel like life-changing tidal waves of good.