BPC Senior Completes Intensive Harvard-MIT Summer Program
LONGMEADOW, Mass.—Bay Path College senior Monica Lefebvre of Feeding Hills got a taste of the potential careers that await her when she participated in the Harvard-MIT Health Sciences & Technology Bioinformatics and Integrative Genomics (HST BIG) Summer Program this year. Based at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge and at Harvard-affiliated institutions in Boston, the nine-week program introduced college students to various scientific professions related to bioinformatics and genomics through a paid internship, which immersed the undergraduates in a rich environment supported by cutting-edge research facilities and expert mentors.
“I’ve always been passionate about science and research, and this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to perform hands-on research related to genetics and the application of information technology to molecular biology,” said Lefebvre.
The HST BIG Summer Program is a highly competitive internship offered to a select number of college students throughout the U.S. Lefebvre is the only New England college student to receive a coveted spot in this year’s HST BIG program. She joined 12 other undergraduates from colleges across the country, including Brigham Young University, Florida International University, College of William and Mary, Princeton University, University of California Berkeley, University of California Davis, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, University of Maryland Baltimore County, University of Puerto Rico Mayaguez, and University of Texas Austin. In addition, Lefebvre is the third student in Bay Path history selected to participate in the summer program. “Monica's success in the bioinformatics and integrative genomics program attests to the rigor of the Bay Path science curriculum and the standards of our faculty, who blend theory and practice with a strong emphasis on research across our science programs. We are all very proud of Monica and look for great things to come from her,” said William L. Sipple, PhD, provost and vice president for academic affairs.
The HST BIG program introduced Lefebvre and her peers to the integration of quantitative and biomedical sciences, providing them with a broad knowledge of clinical relevancy as well as specific skills in the information science of genomics. The program combined lectures and clinical case studies, and participants learned skills fundamental to the task of extracting information from the large amount of data produced by the international Human Genome Project by working with the various tools and databases now available. Students also received guidance through individual tutorials and workshops on preparing and presenting research findings.
To provide participants with a better understanding of how bioinformatics and genomics applies to human health, the program paired the students with acclaimed scientists in the field. Based on her research interests, Lefebvre was matched with Charles Lee, PhD, assistant professor of pathology at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School. For more than two months, she worked in Dr. Lee’s Cytogenetic Research Laboratory, which focuses on the development and application of molecular cytogenetic technologies to study the structure and organization of genomes to understand human diseases and disorders. Lefebvre collaborated with researchers responsible for identifying the exact location of copy number variations (CNVs), which alter genetic information by inserting, deleting or duplicating portions of the DNA sequence. CNVs affect gene expression patterns, resulting in the susceptibility of diseases and disorders, which include HIV/AIDS, Crohn’s disease and autism.
Using zebrafish as her model, Lefebvre was assigned the task of developing effective primers and polymerase chain reactions (PCR) that would enable her and Lee’s lab to amplify DNA and determine the location of CNVs on zebrafish chromosomes. “Once the sequences of the CNVs are determined in zebrafish, then future studies can be done by analyzing the regions for active genes. If an active gene is affected, then the altered gene expression in the zebrafish DNA can be compared to humans. We can evaluate human CNVs for similar effects, thus linking regions of CNVs to particular human disease.” said Lefebvre.
Lefebvre’s research and work ethic impressed researchers in Dr. Lee’s lab. “Monica was an excellent student during her time in our lab and was very diligent in ensuring that her project succeeded,” said Kim Brown, PhD, research fellow in Dr. Lee’s lab and Lefebvre’s supervisor. “Given her skill and knowledge I feel she has an excellent future in scientific research.”
This comes as no surprise to Gina M. Semprebon, PhD, chair of Bay Path’s science and mathematics department and professor of biology. “Monica has always impressed Bay Path faculty with her indomitable spirit and excellent motivation and abilities. She has never waivered in her interest in pursuing a career which combines two of her loves - genetics and medicine. The summer program offered Monica a perfect vehicle to blend her two interests together and to engage in high-powered real research into the genetic mechanisms underlying the occurrence of major diseases in humans,” said Dr. Semprebon. “We are all so excited that Monica has had the extraordinary opportunity to work with some of the most highly regarded researchers in this country. We are very confident that this opportunity will greatly facilitate Monica’s attainment of her goal for advanced graduate study in genetics and DNA techniques, as this has indeed been the case for all of the Bay Path students that have participated in this coveted and highly competitive program.”
As the summer program concluded, Lefebvre and her peers presented their findings to their mentors at a conference. Lefebvre thanked those who encouraged her research efforts in the lab, including Semprebon, who attended Lefebvre’s presentation alongside Lee and his lab, and Bay Path faculty Ping Zhao, associate professor of mathematics, and Hsiang-Ching Kung, PhD, assistant professor of chemistry. “I’ve grown a lot as a student, and Bay Path definitely prepared me for this experience,” said Lefebvre. “The Bioinformatics and Integrative Genomics Program proved to be challenging at times, but the experience was well worth it. From working one-on-one with researchers in a high-powered lab and exposure to the relatively new science of CGH (Comparative Genomic Hybridization) to developing scientific writing and communications skills, the program truly provided a well-rounded education in the various aspects related to scientific research.”
As Lefebvre is preparing for her final year at Bay Path, she is planning to attend graduate school in 2010, taking the next step to a career in genomic research.
About the Harvard-MIT Summer Institute in Bioinformatics
The Summer Institute in Bioinformatics offers a hands-on research experience for outstanding undergraduate college students considering a career in biomedical engineering and medical science. The Summer Institute in Bioinformatics is sponsored by the National Institutes of Health and is offered as a collaboration between the Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology (HST) and the i2b2 National Center Center for Biocomputing. For more about this program, see: http://hst.mit.edu/.