This summer, we welcomed over 15 brilliant high school and college students into our inaugural summer internship program.
With genomic education at the forefront of Weill Cornell Medicine’s mission to care, discover and teach, the Englander Institute for Precision Medicine (EIPM) invited gifted high school and college students to join our multidisciplinary team this summer as part of the inaugural 2018 EIPM Internship Program. While students came from diverse backgrounds, geographic locations, age ranges and skill sets, they left with a shared understanding and appreciation for the critically important role of technology and precision medicine in patient care.
“The experience was valuable to me because of the array of resources made available,” said recent Quinnipiac University graduate Maria Mastropaolo, who spent her summer optimizing media conditions for prostate and pancreatic cancer tumor organoids. “The EIPM staff was committed to explaining libraries and the databases, in addition to mentoring all of the interns on professional development and future plans.”
The range of technology-dominated projects varied across disciplines, introducing students to clinicians, pathologists and computational biologists. Projects spanned disease groups across Weill Cornell Medicine, including Extended and Automated Flow Cytometric Analyses of Acute Myeloid Leukemia, Leveraging Big Data to Diagnose the Primary Risk Factors of Sleep Apnea, and Transposable Elements Profiling Across DLBCL Subtypes. Select computational projects, Path Toward Automated Updates for the Precision Medicine Knowledge Base (PMKB) and Developing Artificial Intelligent Agents to Enhance Access to the Precision Medicine Knowledge Base used R, Python and SQL to better provide information on clinical cancer variants and interpretations.
Techniques were introduced to students in the research laboratory through Optimizing Environments for Tumor Organoid Platform and Validating Mutations in PDX Models through Fluorescent in situ Hybridization (FISH). Leveraging Mixed Reality, Virtual Reality & Augmented Reality for Medical Data Visualization bridged the gap the between computational and laboratory teams. Using a Microsoft HoloLens, a holographic computer with head-mounted display, students aimed to make analysis more intuitive by enabling technicians to view Tumor Organoids, or 3D cell cultures, in the form of life-size holograms.
“These tools help researchers to visualize huge amounts of data, such as a gene sequence, in a way that is neatly organized and compressed, and allows researchers to interact with graphs in a new and immersive way,” noted Alex Sigaras, a Senior Research Associate in Computational Biomedicine and mentor to the summer interns. “The ability to visualize big data in 3D and use that data to collaborate across disciplines through Mixed Reality is transforming cancer research.”
The summer interns often found that their projects complemented what they have learned in the classroom. “I managed, curated, and analyzed sleep medicine data on my own during the program–this allowed me to gain a real sense of independence in my work,” said Anna Jacobson, who spent her summer researching the most important risk factors of obstructive sleep apnea. “There is a lot more structure in my school classes, but it really takes independent work through an internship like this to gain next-level experience in the field.”
While not working on projects, students attended seminars with industry speakers discussing the impact of genomics, collaborative working groups, journal clubs discussing recent papers in Nature and Cell and professional development workshops focused on resume building and networking.
EIPM internships have opened a range of doors for young people like Sophia Roshal who just finished her third summer with EIPM and will be starting her un
dergraduate studies at Cornell University in the fall. “I didn’t expect to meet so many interesting people,” said Sophia, who worked on the Hololens project. “Through my projects at EIPM I’ve collaborated with professors, software engineers, colleagues at the Weill Cornell Medicine-Qatar location, and partners at Microsoft. Everyone at EIPM was very approachable and nobody treated me differently for being a high school student. I was part of the team, no questions asked.”
The eight-week program culminated with a Poster Session that provided participants with an opportunity to showcase their research projects to Weill Cornell Medicine clinicians and academics. “This was a valuable experience,” said Joseph Liu, whose work explored cancer hotspots, regions in the genome where the driver mutations that propel a tumor in its evolution can appear. “It helped me get used to speaking to people and making presentations. I would encourage other students to apply for an internship at the EIPM because of the inspiring mentors, the positive and energetic team, and the good atmosphere,” said Joseph Liu.
Many of the students came to their internships with strong technical and computational backgrounds, and were seeking a meaningful way apply their skill sets. 17-year-old Nastassja Kuznetsova was happy to gain access to top-notch technology, “I don’t want to be the next Mark Zuckerberg or the next finance billionaire – I want to write code that can make a difference in people’s lives. Weill Cornell is a really great place to do that.”
Many of the interns noted how helpful and encouraging their mentors, supervisors and colleagues were to their summer program.
“This was an incredibly valuable experience, especially because Kenneth Eng, the supervisor with whom I worked, was very open to any new ideas I proposed. He helped me bring them to fruition, while providing enough direction to link all ideas back to my main project. Through this internship, I was able to hone my programming skills, to come up with new exciting ideas, and to integrate everything I learned into a coherent project,” said summer intern Justin Lue, an undergraduate at Cornell University studying computational biology and computer science.
Caroline Levenson also felt the summer internship was a valuable experience, “After working with virtual reality last summer, I wanted to continue working with VR in a non-game related field. After narrowing my Google search to VR and Healthcare, I was fortunate to come across Alex’s [Sigaras] work and decided EIPM would be a great place to be involved in.”
“I found this internship after applying to the computational biology internship at WCMC and was forwarded to EIPM,” said Gurion Marks, an undergraduate at Johns Hopkins University. “I found it to be a great experience, and sharpened my skills in areas that I don’t generally focus on in a class setting. My mentors Alex and software engineer Pantelis Zisimopoulos were really hands-on and taught me a lot about how to be a more effective developer. As I’m usually working on implementing the algorithms to manipulate and analyze data I really enjoyed learning how to interface this with a front end to produce a final product. Adding functionality and working with feedback to make a product better was really cool, and getting to do this for a clinical tool was even more rewarding.”
“We were proud to host the next generation of scientists and researchers this summer,” said Olivier Elemento, Ph.D., Director of the Englander Institute. “Mentorship is an integral part of our vision – We want to introduce young scientists and engineers to the fast-paced advancements in precision medicine and foster the future of genomic medicine.”
The end of the summer doesn’t mean the end of our relationship with these talented young people, we look forward to collaborating for many years to come.