In high school biology, we learn the fundamental principles of science through one of the most straightforward methods: vocabulary definitions. We open our textbooks to this week’s chapter, flip through the pages, and BAM! Right there, laid out in bold print are the chapter’s key terms. In early May, shortly before learning I had been given the opportunity to do stem cell research over the summer, I flipped open my textbook to this week’s chapter: The Essentials of Stem Cell Biology. Like any other chapter, I looked for the key terms and came across a word that seemed like any other word at the time. Little did I know, this word would change my entire outlook on science, medicine, and opportunity in a few short weeks.
“Stem cell: noun. an undifferentiated cell of a multicellular organism that is capable of giving rise to indefinitely more cells of the same type, and from which certain other kinds of cell arise by differentiation.”
Solid definition, right? But what this definition doesn’t tell you is what has come to have a very special place in my heart over the past 7 weeks. What this definition doesn’t tell you is that not only can stem cells give rise to indefinitely more cells of the same type, but they are giving rise to infinite scientific discoveries and advances that are changing the way we think, treat, cure, and thrive. Their existence is giving way to revolutionary treatments and therapies in healthcare. What that textbook couldn’t tell you is that for patients, stem cells are more than just a definition. They are their last hope and their greatest savior. What it didn’t tell you was everything I was about to learn in the next few weeks.
The first few weeks of research were filled with lots of new experiences. It was filled with trial and error, lots of reading, and a whole lot of protocols. To accompany my research, I attended program lectures ranging from learning the basics of stem cell science, like their varying potencies, to learning first hand the techniques and machinery I’d soon be using in the lab like western blots, flow cytometry, and gel electrophoresis, to learning about cloning and CRISPR all from researchers who are pioneers and forerunners in their fields. The amount of passion in the room was empowering. Things that were just vocabulary words in my textbooks were coming alive before my very eyes and were being applied to scientific studies and clinical trials I never would have thought imaginable.
Then of course, there was my lab. I entered every morning greeted by my post-doc mentor and the other 7 lab members, all PhDs and doctors. The intimidation factor was high, but what shocked me was the incredible humility, kindness, and patience of all of the lab members who answered my questions, and walked me through protocols, experimental procedures, and cell culture work time and time again until I gained confidence and independence. I began growing two of my very own cell lines and caring for them every single day. I was given my first tray of induced pluripotent stem cells and was walked through the entire process of specialization. After close to 20 days of adding a medley of small molecules to allow them to specialize, a wide range of different medias to keep them happy and alive, and a special glucose starvation regimen, my iPS cells had started to beat. They had become beating heart cells! That was the moment that solidified my love for research and showed me what I was capable of doing. In the weeks that followed, I even got to use these cells in one of the most important experiments of my project.
The next few weeks were filled with experiments galore, lab meetings, and Be the Match bone marrow registry outreach events. I began to fall in love with the joy of discovery that comes along with science all the while seeing firsthand through Be the Match the power and effect of stem cell therapies on countless lives. The power of stem cells is real, and it’s exciting. I’d like to finish my blog post with a quote:
“It’s an unexplainably raw, yet empowering feeling one gets when they’re thrown into an entirely new experience. However, what’s even more empowering is that someone has given you an opportunity to learn and gain experience in a field what my curiosity has no limits and my desire to learn and one day make a difference is unparalleled. Although it’s only the beginning, I can’t help but excitedly await what lies ahead. There is so much to experience, to learn, to prove, and everything to gain. Nothing is more powerful than an opportunity.”
That quote was written by me, Roxanne, on the first day of my summer internship. Never would I have guessed that 7 weeks of research could change my life so greatly. I have learned the true nature of science, filled with excitement, failure, repetition, and success. I have seen the massive power and truly touching and empowering influence of what was once just a word on a page to me. My experiences this summer will undoubtedly influence every single one of my future endeavors. I am forever grateful for the opportunity.