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MCCC Students Learn Real World Lab Skills
As Interns at Genesis Biotechnology Group


West Windsor, N.J. – A good internship in the sophomore year of college can make a huge difference in the life of a budding scientist.  Five students from Mercer County Community College had an opportunity to learn about the real world of sophisticated lab research at Genesis Biotechology Group (GBG) during their winter break. The internships, which started at the beginning of January, continued through January 19 at the company’s state-of-the-art Hamilton-based research facilities.

The MCCC interns all agree that they couldn’t have asked for a better environment to learn new science skills. According to Dr. Martin Adelson, GBG’s Chief Operating Officer, the company has a history of providing internship opportunities to students – from high schoolers up through doctoral students – but this was the first time they have partnered with a community college.

Two of the students, Yifan Zhao and Sarah Patterson, worked in the genetics labs at HUMIGEN, one of several GBG companies. Noting how well-prepared the students were, Dr. Grant Gallagher, HUMIGEN’s Managing Director, observed, “The Mercer interns were more comfortable in the lab than some of our third and fourth-year college interns, who have not had the hands-on lab courses offered at Mercer. These students have been very good ambassadors for future MCCC students.”

All of the Mercer interns say they found themselves far removed from classroom laboratories, as they immersed themselves in disease research under the guidance of research advisors who are working to find better diagnoses and more specific treatments for a range of diseases including asthma, atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries), inflammatory bowel disease and numerous common cancers.

Biology/Chemistry major Sarah Patterson participated in a research project with Raymond Yu, Ph.D., whose work focuses on blocking receptors that play a role in human autoimmune diseases. Patterson notes that she took to the work quickly. “On the first day, Dr. Yu showed me, on the second day we did it together, and on the third day, I was doing it on my own.” She notes she returns to Mercer better prepared for a class in genetics she is taking this semester. “It will be easy to apply what I learned when I go back to the classroom,” Patterson said.

Student Yifan Zhao says he too learned new techniques as he worked on mouse models as part of an ongoing investigation to find novel therapeutic targets in the treatment of allergic asthma. According to researcher Rachael Siegel, Ph.D., one of their projects was “proof of concept,” the first step used as a baseline for any new therapy.

Just around the corner from HUMIGEN, students Yulia Tsebriy, Nicole Sullivan and Fabiola Pincay focused on projects for another GBG company, VENENUM. Tsebriy and Sullivan carried out basic molecular and biochemical methodologies with research advisor Jamie Francisco, who is working on new therapies to treat atherosclerosis. “Our goal is targeted drug development that lessens the side effects of current treatments for lowering cholesterol,” Francisco explained.

From left, HUMIGEN's Managing Director Grant Gallagher, Ph.D., MCCC interns Sarah Patterson and Yifan Zhao, research advisor Rachael Siegel, Ph.D., and Dr. Martin Adelson, Chief Operating Officer for the Genesis Biotechnology Group.

From left, GBG research advisor Jamie Francisco, MCCC interns Nicole Sullivan, Yulia Tsebriy and Fabiola Pincay, and  research advisor Amy Werda.

MCCC student Yifan Zhao is pictured in the lab
with research advisor Rachael Siegel, Ph.D.
Zhao has returned to college with his sights
set on neuroscience research.

According to Francisco, the students grew to appreciate the scientific process, the trial and error that is part of basic research.  “If it doesn’t work the first time, you try again. If it doesn’t work the second time, you do something different.  Sometimes you take steps backward before you move forward.  In order to demonstrate you are right, you must prove everything else wrong,” she said.

Ysebriy was fascinated by the process. “In the textbook, it looks so easy. Now I understand how difficult it is. There is real detective work involved,”   she said.

Currently in graduate school herself, Francisco says, “I have been in their shoes. It’s great to be in the teacher role.  We hope to teach them some of the ‘tricks of the trade.’”

Student Fabiola Pincay worked with Research Associate Amy Werda on a project that investigates the roles of tumor suppressors and oncogenes (genes that have the potential to cause cancers), with the goal of making diagnoses and treatments more specific. Pincay also examined a variety of serum samples of major cancers, looking for certain types of biomarkers.

Pincay, a Biology major, says that in her first two days in the lab, it was like a different language. “There was so much new terminology.  I asked so many questions,” she recalls. "I saw cells grow, be harvested, analyzed, and photographed.  There were many phases.”  She notes the immediate relevance her internship will have in her studies this semester. 

All three students who interned at VENENUM say the work has introduced them to a new world.  Sullivan is interested in being a physician, but her interest in research is clearly piqued. “This is great a step up for me,” Sullivan said.  “I want to pursue every opportunity I can. You never know what you will like.”

Both Drs. Adelson and Gallagher note that by pursuing lab internships, these students are creating important stepping stones for their futures.  “Having real lab experience makes a big difference in the hiring process.  It’s best to start in the first two years and build on that,” Dr. Gallagher said.

Looking towards the students’ future careers, Dr. Adelson advised them to apply for positions for which they are truly qualified. “We are interested in the uniqueness of the applicant’s skill set and how well it matches the positions we are looking to fill,” he said.

Researchers Werda and Francisco observe that one skill set all scientists must possess is the ability to handle setbacks, but both say they are buoyed by the cohesiveness of the team they work with at GBG. 

“It’s a great environment. There is a lot of idea sharing and collaboration. What we do is basic science, but it has applications that can change lives,” Francisco said.

The GBG staffers say they enjoyed mentoring Mercer students and will welcome other interns from the college in the future.  They also hope they sent the students back to college inspired to pursue a future in research.

“In school everything goes back to the grade.  Here it’s all about the science…and sometimes it’s like magic,” Werda said.

Later in February, the five students will do presentations at Mercer in front of MCCC faculty and students, along with their GBG research advisors.  Their internships count as a two-credit course in Honors Biology/Chemistry and were facilitated by MCCC Biology Professor Diane Hilker and Chemistry Professor Helen Tanzini.

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