Summer fellowship leads undergrads to surprising discoveries

Monday, Sep 9, 2019
by Scott Lyon

Rawlison Zhang knew how to control a pipette. He had collected data all summer in Celeste Nelson's Tissue Morphodynamics Laboratory, sampling tissue cells and shedding light on the formation of developing bird lungs. But precision techniques were only a piece of what he had gained after nine weeks in the lab. The big payoff came in the form of a few crucial strides toward a career in biomedical research.

As Zhang sat at a breakroom table, explaining the research he had undertaken with his mentors, he slipped easily in and out of the lab's jargon. Epithelial branches, mesenchymal signaling—in just over two months, he had mastered a small corner of tissue engineering, and a career in research had become possible before his eyes.

"I'm interested in the overlap of human health and fundamental chemical engineering," Zhang said. He had begun the summer with medical school in mind and ended it with an eye toward medical research. "I'm thinking about an M.D./Ph.D."

This research opportunity came along through the Reiner G. Stoll Undergraduate Summer Fellowship in Chemical Engineering, an annual offering from the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering made possible by the Camille and Henry Dreyfus Foundation. The fellowship gives undergraduate students a chance to pursue independent research under the mentorship of a faculty adviser. And year after year it proves invaluable to the shaping of the fellows' futures.

This year, four students were funded with Stoll Summer Fellowships, each in a different lab. Three of the students were rising seniors, and all three of them will parlay their summer work into their senior thesis projects. Two of the four students earned co-author credits on papers published in leading academic journals. All of the students commented on the collaborative nature of their experiences.

"I saw that it's not just one project," said Margarite Orlova, one of the fellows. "Research is continuous. Some things that don't seem important at first end up being really helpful for someone else later on."

While all four of this year's fellows worked in bioengineering-related research, the fellowship is open to students pursuing research in any number of topics related to the department.

Here are the details from this year's four Stoll Summer Fellowships:

Allana Iwanicki, sophomore, worked in the lab of Clifford Brangwynne, professor of chemical and biological engineering. Her project included learning a microinjection technique, inserting biomolecules into individual cells to test ideas about the mechanics of stress granules. Iwanicki co-authored a paper, based on this research, that is currently under review at a leading journal.

Margarita Orlova, senior, worked in the lab of A. James Link, professor of chemical and biological engineering. Her project included work with a newly discovered anti-microbial lasso peptide, which she will carry over into her senior thesis. After working this summer, Orlova is considering adding a research component to her medical school plans.

Jake Strain, senior, worked in the lab of Daniel Cohen, assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering. His project included dyeing and imaging kidney cells to elucidate their behavior on various substrates. The experience has encouraged him toward a career in industrial research and development.

Rawlison Zhang, senior, worked in the lab of Celeste Nelson, professor of chemical and biological engineering. His project added to a body of research modeling the branching system of a developing chicken lung. He co-authored a paper published in the journal Development, and will present results at an upcoming biomedical conference. Additionally, he will continue a line of related research for his senior thesis.